When Hollywood producers scan their in-boxes for hot scripts, they look for a story with a "through line." They'd like you to believe this term refers to a strong, lean narrative that pulls you through the movie and keeps you interested. But it really refers to a concept you can summarize in a sentence, or better yet, a sentence fragment, so that even the dullest studio executive can grasp it without looking up from his caesar salad and Perrier. Salable lines read something like "Heartless corporate raider falls in love with charming young prostitute," or "Good Terminator fights evil Terminator to prevent Armageddon," or "Imprisoned cannibal genius helps FBI trainee track down serial killer." Or, in the case of the smart new thriller The Hand That Rocks the Cradle: "Killer nanny!"
But thankfully, Amanda Silver's clever script turns this modestly budgeted scare job into more than just a blood-and-guts time killer; Silver and director Curtis Hanson move their villain around as cautiously as a chess piece, and even while you hate and fear her, you understand her loneliness and pain (like the demise of the self-loathing woman-skinner James Gumb in Silence of the Lambs, De Mornay's death brings not whoops of glee, but gasps of guilty relief). As played by Rebecca De Mornay, Silver's motherhood-obsessed asylum case is a fascinating creation - part protector and part destroyer - whose psychosis makes her pitiable as well as frightening.
She's the widow of a patient-molesting gynecologist who killed himself when a complaint lodged by one of his pregnant young victims (Annabella Sciorra, radiant and fragile) cost him his medical license. That, coupled with the revelation that her late husband's insurance policy was negated by his suicide, contributed to the brutal miscarriage that destroyed her womb and derailed her sanity. Now she's a barren woman with a barren future: no money, no husband, no baby, no hope. Only her steel will and devious mind keep her going.
So she does what any young widow in mourning would do: she gets a job as a nanny at the home of the woman whose testimony against her gynecologist husband set the wheels of tragedy in motion. But she doesn't con her way into her adversary's household just to murder an infant and claim revenge; she wants something deeper: to destroy the family from within, expel the young wife, and take her place in domestic bliss.
This is as good a mainstream shocker as you're likely to find; it's more in line with the kitschy but effective thrillers of the early Sixties, like Whatever Happened to Baby Jane and the original Cape Fear, than their modern all-gore-and-no-brains stepchildren. It's a psychological thriller in the truest sense of the word, because its villain does her dirty work not through torture and murder, but through mind games, dirty tricks, and emotional one-upsmanship.
Rather than dropping the infant into the trash compactor, pushing the mother out a window, and peeling away on the interstate, De Mornay's nanny works methodically, almost invisibly, to infect a seemingly happy clan with mistrust and suspicion. She doesn't want to annihilate the family, she wants to claim it for herself, as rightful restitution from the woman who destroyed her life. In this light, The Hand can be seen as the feminine mirror image of Martin Scorsese's Cape Fear remake, in which Max Cady, a mentally unhinged angel of death, punishes the lawyer whose hypocritical do-gooding robbed him of his freedom and sanity.
But unlike Robert De Niro's Cady, De Mornay's nanny works on her targets from the inside out rather than the other way around. De Niro unbalanced his middle-class enemy by raping his erstwhile mistress and biting off a chunk of her face. De Mornay is quieter, craftier; she causes untold damage by planting an item of jewelry in an unusual location, or misplacing an important letter, or winning the loyalty of her employer's children by doing the sort of compassionate, protective things that their emotionally distant blood mother won't. She suckles the infant she's supposed to be bottle-feeding; her employer's preschool-age daughter secretly agrees to let her intimidate a boy who's been picking on her at school, because her real mother is too busy with her career to take care of such seemingly tiny details.
De Mornay is a yuppie mom's worst nightmare; her employer hates her for exposing her imperfections, for giving her own shortcomings concrete form (when Sciorra peers down a staircase at the unholy sight of her husband and daughter playing a board game on the rug with De Mornay, her face registers surprise, revulsion, and acknowledgment of her own failings as a mother; it's a freakishly upsetting moment, and the movie could have ended right there, because the real damage, the emotional damage, has irreversibly been done). De Mornay's mission isn't destruction, but subversion, and it's to the filmmaker's credit that her actions are rarely unbelievable; you almost never get the urge to yell, "Idiot! Don't believe her!" at the onscreen family, because De Mornay is so smooth and convincing, and her tricks so cleverly camouflaged, that if you were in their shoes, you'd probably believe her, too.
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The Hand That Rocks the Cradle isn't an earthshaking artistic masterpiece, mind you - just a well-written, well-acted horror flick that knows exactly what it wants to do to you and does it cleanly and efficiently, with a minimum of directorial flash. Curtis Hanson, a gifted suspense director whose cool, no-frills style made even the idiotic Bad Influence watchable, keeps Silver's story swimming gracefully along, and tosses in just enough false-alarm shocks to remind you that this is a Hollywood thriller where a time-honored trapped-in-a-dark-house-with-the-villain-during-a-thunderstorm finale will end things with no loose ends and no messy afterthoughts of guilt or shame. But even the obligatory blowout climax is intelligently mounted; little touches, like the father (Matt McCoy) turning on the light before descending into the darkened, nanny-hiding basement, and the mother (Annabella Sciorra) immediately calling the cops at the first sign of trouble, will make even jaded horror fans grin with delight.
And it's the little things that ultimately matter in movies like this one, which aren't really about violence, but the suppressed desires and misplaced hatreds that birth them. The image of a nightie-clad De Mornay sitting in a darkened upstairs bedroom, creaking back and forth in a rocking chair, cooing softly, suckling her employer's baby from her dry, childless breast, is more unnerving and spooky than any number of caged cannibals or tattooed rapists. De Mornay's performance is a sexy, scary, complex wonder; she's a killer nanny with an emotional purple heart, and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle is a thriller with style and guts.
THE HAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE
Directed by Curtis Hanson; written by Amanda Silver; with Rebecca De Mornay, Annabelle Sciorra, and Matt McCoy.