A diabolically delicious, utterly malevolent dark thrill ride from start to finish, Curtis Hanson’s The Hand That Rocks The Cradle (1992) did for the affluent suburbanite hiring a nanny what Fatal Attraction had done for the family guy toying with the idea of having an extramarital affair; scared the living daylights out of them. Even today, there is something skin-crawlingly original and unsettling about Rebecca DeMornay’s finely wrought performance as a seemingly normal, surface-sheen congenial caregiver who slowly degenerates into a psychosis that wreaks havoc on the unsuspecting Bartel family.
DeMornay, a superb actress rarely given such opportunities to exercise her craft to its fullest, is the physical embodiment of undiluted evil; unrelentingly monolithic in her destructiveness, both self-inflicted and otherwise. The wonderment of it is that her performance never quite veers into cliché and even more surprisingly manages, at least in a few instances, to illicit our empathy for the character Peyton ‘Motts’ Flanders.
The screenplay by Amanda Silver begins in earnest in suburbia; an idyllic ‘fool’s paradise’ where happily marrieds Claire (Annabella Sciorra) and Michael (Matt McCoy) Bartel are anticipating the arrival of their second child. Their first, Emma (Madeline Zima) is a precocious, loveable moppet. It’s all so perfect. But this portrait of domesticity is shattered after obstetrician Dr. Victor Mott (John de Lancie) molests Claire during a routine check-up and examination. After some brief contemplation, Claire tells Michael about her encounter and the couple decides to press charges. Four more women come forward with similar allegations and Mott decides to kill himself rather than face the disgrace of a public trial.
The Bartels move on with their lives. Claire gives birth to their second child, Joe. They hire Solomon (Ernie Hudson), a developmentally challenged man with gifted hands to help spruce up their backyard and home. Solomon builds a stylish white picket fence, installs a birdhouse and begins to paint the exterior. Although Emma immediately bonds with him, Claire is circumspect about letting Solomon get too close to either of her children.
At about the same time Michael encourages Claire to hire a nanny. Enter Peyton (DeMornay), unassuming in her introduction and methodically innocuous in her subtle devotion to home and hearth. Unbeknownst to the Bartels, Peyton is Mott’s widow. After his suicide she suffered a miscarriage from stress caused by being evicted from their home. Forced to undergo a hysterectomy to save her own life, Peyton sees a picture of Claire on the nightly news in relation to her husband’s case that the Bartels have decided to drop. Now Peyton is determined to take from Claire everything she believes Claire has taken from her.
She becomes the Bartel’s nanny and moves into a basement apartment in their home. She begins weaning Joe on her own breast milk. As a result, when Claire tries to feed her baby he becomes cranky and unresponsive. Sensing a threat from Solomon after he accidentally witnesses her with the baby, Peyton implants the notion in Claire’s mind that Solomon has begun to harbour deviant sexual thoughts about Emma.
As the Bartels begin construction on a greenhouse in their backyard, Peyton hides a pair of Emma’s underwear among Solomon’s work kit; then innocently asks Claire to look for a spare pair of batteries for the baby monitor among Solomon’s things. Discovering Emma’s underwear, and assuming the worst, Claire has Solomon removed. Emma is heartbroken and begins to hate her mother. In the meantime, Peyton drives a wedge between Michael and Claire, stealing an important document that Claire was supposed to mail for Michael and thus ruining his opportunity to take advantage of a new business proposal.
Recognizing an unsettling despondency in his wife, Michael is encouraged by Peyton to plan a surprise birthday party for Claire with the aid of Marlene Craven (Julianne Moore); a high-powered real estate agent who coincidentally used to be Michael’s old flame but is now a sincere friend to Claire. Marlene’s husband, Marty (Kevin Skousen) takes a flirtatious shine to Peyton and Marlene, half serious/half joking, warns Claire that “the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world”.
Claire, however, is unconvinced about Peyton’s duplicity, but feels quite betrayed when she discovers Marlene’s cigarette lighter inside her husband’s coat pocket. Assuming the worst, Claire confronts Michael with her suspicions about his having an affair with Marlene, unaware that Marlene and a room full of close friends is standing just on the other side of the wall waiting to surprise her for her birthday. The moment ruined and the bond of friendship between Marlene and Claire wounded – though hardly broken – the next day Marlene returns to work where she is offered a listing on the Mott’s former residence. Noticing the wind chimes dangling off its various porches, Marlene is reminded of a similar chime Peyton has strung outside Joe’s bedroom.
Her investigation leads to a startling revelation about Peyton that Marlene cannot wait to share with Claire. Meanwhile, Peyton has rigged the glass ceiling of the greenhouse to come crashing down. But Claire informs Peyton that she intends to go to market first and buy some new seedlings. Claire and Marlene miss one another. Instead, Marlene bursts in on Peyton, confronts her with the truth about her identity and purpose, before accidentally setting off the greenhouse trap. Marlene is impaled by the heavy shards of glass that come crashing to the ground and Peyton, after emptying all of Claire’s asthma puffers, takes Joe for an outing in the park. Claire arrives home, finds Marlene dead in the greenhouse and suffers an asthmatic attack. Unable to relieve it, she is just able to dial 911 before collapsing.
Paramedics narrowly save Claire’s life by rushing her to hospital. That evening Peyton makes a play for Michael that is unequivocally shot down. Despite having been cast out of the Bartel’s home, Solomon has kept a vigilant watch over his former friends since leaving their employ. Claire begins to suspect that all her troubles began when Peyton came to live with them and decides to go to Marlene’s office to learn what she was up to just before she died.
A fellow realtor shows Claire the Mott’s home and Claire, realizing that Peyton and Mrs. Motts are one in the same, returns home in a feisty confrontational mood. She promptly assaults Peyton and then informs Michael of her findings. Ordered to leave, Peyton returns later that same night. She lures Michael to the basement, knocking him from the stairs with a shovel and breaking both his legs.
Claire finds Michael who warns her that Peyton is in the house. Claire tells Emma to lock herself in her room, before hurrying to the kitchen to phone the police. Unfortunately, Peyton is waiting for her there and knocks her unconscious with the shovel. Peyton then discovers Emma cringing in the hallway. Having completely slipped her mind, Peyton tells Emma that she is going to take her and Joe away from “those people” and refers to herself as “Mommy”.
Seeing through her disguise, Emma locks Peyton in the nursery and takes Joe to the attic. But Peyton breaks out and rushes to apprehend them. She finds Emma and Joe guarded by Solomon and attempts to attack him with a poker from the fireplace. Instead, Claire rushes in and after a struggle, shoves Peyton through one of the dormer windows. She plummets three stories to her death, impaled on the white picket posts of the fence Solomon built. Hearing police sirens in the distance, Claire entrusts Joe to Solomon with confidence as she rushes to the basement to be by Michael’s side.
The Hand That Rocks the Cradle will leave many sleepless, if only because it presents a mostly believable scenario in an utterly convincing way. Like Hitchcock’s Shadow of A Doubt, Curtis Hanson introduces us to the idyllic American home and its surroundings: unassuming, inviting and totally vulnerable to the threat of invasion from without. With cleverly sustained plotting, screenwriter Amanda Silver gradually unravels the relative safety of the Bartel home until its cozy nooks and crannies become insidiously creepy pockets of corrosive self-destruction. Much of the Bartels’ undoing (the rift between mother and daughter/between husband and wife) is perpetuated by Claire – having been brought to the well of suspicion by only modest inferences from Peyton.
Hanson draws upon the duality between Claire and Peyton; both married to successful men, both pregnant at the same time, each living resplendently until that fateful moment when everything went sour for one because of the other. The real plus for the film is that Hanson, Silver and DeMornay take great pains to retain a modicum of sympathy for Peyton until the very end. She is a tragic figure, destroyed in her heart and corrupted in her mind by an all-consuming revenge, not only inevitable but strangely warranted; especially since Claire has decided to drop the lawsuit against Dr. Mott after he kills himself. For Peyton, it is as though Claire has become satisfied with bringing death and ruination to the life of a woman she has never met. Thus, Peyton’s revenge on the Bartels, a family she has never known, seems an almost sweet and justifiable quid pro quo.
Again, it is DeMornay’s performance that really sells this show; appetizingly manipulative and disturbingly real. Ernie Hudson’s devoted protector is big-hearted and child-like in his mannerisms but adult and very sincere in his motives. Julianne Moore plays the piss-elegant bitch with an appropriate amount of venom and daggers in her eyes. The one misfire in casting is Matt McCoy; fairly ineffectual and too milquetoast for either the woman in his life or the one who desires to possess him for her own. Otherwise, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle comes highly recommended. It is a slickly packaged, stylishly produced, sure fire suspense/thriller that will undoubtedly continue to unnerve and enthral.
Buena Vista Home Video’s Blu-ray is a very solid upgrade from the previously issued DVD. There’s really no comparing the two. The DVD was non-anamorphic. The 1080p hi-def image excels in all the places we’ve come to expect from the Blu-ray format. Colours are not ultra-vibrant, but then again Robert Elswit’s cinematography was going for the understated look. We get a gorgeous rendering that preserves his moody palette, creating slightly oppressive visuals from seemingly harmless urban settings like the local watering hole or school yard.
Colours are refined on the Blu-ray (something they weren’t on the DVD) and we also get very solid contrast levels and a good light smattering of film grain appropriately reproduced. The audio is 5.1 DTS and very solid indeed. The Hand That Rocks the Cradle will hardly give your speakers a sonic workout, but the audio uses its sound field to good effect that heightens the overall tension. The one regret of the Blu-ray is that it furnishes us with NO extras; save a trailer. It would have been nice to have at least an audio commentary. Bottom line: recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)