There's something admirably gutsy about an independent filmmaker choosing mother-son incest as the subject of his first film, then making it on a shoestring with a cast of unknowns. No matter how good a picture it may be, a topic this disturbing and depressing is not the sort of thing that the audience, even the art-house audience, is likely to put on its must-see list. So writer-director David O. Russell's Spanking the Monkey is to be praised as much for its nerve as for its crispness and lucidity.
Variations on the woes of Oedipus, the hapless king of Thebes, are perennials in Western culture. Partly, no doubt, this is because that most complex of complexes is psychologically basic to the human race, period. But it's also because the Oedipus Rex of Sophocles is the play -- the one cited by Aristotle as the perfect model of dramatic construction.
Russell attempts, in Spanking the Monkey, to take the Oedipus archetype out of the formal idiom of classic drama and adapt it to the structures of domestic realism. It's hardly the first such attempt A Neil Jordan took a swing at it a few years back with his pre-The Crying Game effort The Miracle, but in the end he chickened out and pulled the punch, taking refuge in whimsy and sentimentality.
Spanking the Monkey fully engages its inherent horror, yet it's one of the few treatments of the theme that isn't suffused with hostility toward the mother figure. Although Oedipus's Jocasta is at least as pitiable a victim of fate as her son/husband, the subsequent tradition has tended toward blaming the mother. This has been especially true in the movies -- see Psycho, The Manchurian Candidate, and, of course, the most moving film of 1992, Stop! or My Mom Will Shoot.
It's the son, not the mother, who comes across unsympathetically in Spanking the Monkey, even though his surliness is understandable. Ray (Jeremy Davies) must spend the summer between his freshman and sophomore years in college at his suburban home, taking care of his not-very-old mother (Alberta Watson), who has been made a temporary invalid in an accident. His father (Benjamin Hendrickson), a loathsome, selfish traveling salesman, has a long summer's haul on the road.
To thus be a dutiful son, Ray must miss out on a good summer internship (he's pre-med). His father has forbidden him to use the car except in emergencies. He's outgrown his old hometown friends. He's attracted to a teenage neighbor (Carla Gallo), and she likes him, too, but he's so sexually overbearing and socially inept that he keeps alienating her. He's stuck home, lonely, wretchedly bored, and desperately horny.
The film's title, as you already may know, is a euphemism for masturbation, and Ray is denied even this diversion. In a series of simultaneously poignant and hilarious sequences, the family dog's watchful patrolling foils Ray in his attempts to have a nice, peaceful wank. Having to help his mother bathe and dress pushes Ray's combination of resentment and sexual frustration to the breaking point, and, to his terror, he can see that the arousal he feels near her is reciprocated.
Davies is a good-looking young fellow and a capable actor, but Russell pointedly avoids presenting him as a James Deanish brooding glamourpuss. Russell keeps undercutting Ray with blackly comic belittling, turning him into a whiner, an ingrate -- a son who, so to speak, only a mother could love.
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The more powerful presence in the film, however, is Watson. This handsome, commandingly sexy actress gives a performance of uncommon subtlety and intricacy, showing us the terrible emotional starvation that makes possible the character's lapse into willing incest. She's a strong, estimable woman, not a victim, and yet not quite a monster, either. Even though she and Ray (unlike Oedipus and Jocasta) are aware of what they're doing from the start, the culprit in both cases is the same -- an alignment of fate and human frailty.
What's extraordinary about Spanking the Monkey is how Russell, having selected this difficult, sensational material, nonetheless avoids prurience and melodrama. His purpose is to make the central situation intelligible -- not acceptable, but intelligible -- and he goes about it with remarkably assured, no-nonsense technique. Even the story's resolution seems just right. The final scenes are dramatically satisfying, yet they aren't pat; they retain a hint of elusiveness and mystery.
The intimate scenes between Ray and his mother are just long and just graphic enough to make their points, and no longer. Russell is surgically precise in his discretion; he neither flinches nor drools. That's the great virtue of the film -- Russell never indulges in any cinematic monkey-spanking of his own.