Is The Hand that Rocks the Cradle really that bad? If you remember it at all, you probably have fuzzy memories of a serviceable thriller starring ur-right wing blowhard Wally George’s daughter. Upon review, it’s clear that much of the movie’s greatness is entirely unintentional, which marks it as a true Yakmala film.
Tagline: [The Hand that Rocks the Cradle]…is the hand that rules the world
More Accurate Tagline: …is the hand that punches Rebecca De Mornay in the face
Guilty Party: Writer Amanda Silver. While some might put Curtis Hanson at fault, the genesis for what goes horribly awry is right there in the script. Meanwhile, Hanson has directed one great film (L.A. Confidential) and one watchable-at-the-time-but-now-kind-of-embarrassing film (8 Mile), so I’m going to blame Silver. Her other major movies were Eye for an Eye and The Relic so we’re not exactly dealing with someone who layers on the nuance.
Synopsis: Claire Bartel (Annabella Sciorra, who apparently has always looked that old) has the perfect first-act horror movie family. She lives in a giant white house and she’s married to Michael (Matt McCoy), a nice bearded scientist. Together they have a little daughter Emma (Madeline Zima), a baby on the way, and a mentally challenged man named Solomon (Ernie Hudson) who does construction work. That’s right, everything’s coming up Milhouse for Claire. Things start going pear-shaped when she goes to a new gynecologist (John de Lancie) who immediately molests her. This is disconcerting, since it’s difficult to say exactly what Claire Bartel’s vagina has to do with the Q Continuum.
Claire has a Sisko-like tolerance for Q’s shenanigans and sues him publicly. As four other women come forward to complain about Q’s roamin’ hands, he shoots himself. His wife Peyton (Rebecca De Mornay), also pregnant, miscarries when she finds out that the suicide has voided Q’s insurance. Man, budget cuts really gutted the Continuum.
But Peyton isn’t about to take this lying down. Six months later, she insinuates herself into the Bartel household as a nanny for baby Joe and proceeds to subtly turn everyone against poor Claire. Peyton destroys important outgoing mail (a federal crime!), nurses the baby so he no longer accepts his mother’s breast, plants the insidious seed that Michael is cheating on Claire with Julianne Moore (Julianne Moore), attempts on two occasions to seduce Michael, and even frames the magical fence-building simpleton for child molestation. It’s a master class in Machiavellian manipulation and staying warm despite being completely unaware of the invention of underpants.
Peyton takes it a step too far when she uses a greenhouse to kill Julianne Moore and a sabotaged asthma inhaler in an attempt to take out Claire. Don’t ask. Anyway, Claire finally figures out that all the weird stuff going on was Peyton’s fault using the twin smoking guns of a breast pump and turtle wallpaper. It’s sort like of an episode of House written by Maude Lebowski.
Instead of reacting reasonably, Claire goes home and pops Peyton in the face. Since this was a proud member of the early ‘90s subgenre of thrillers about seemingly normal people going Glenn-Beck-at-an-NAACP-meeting insane, there has to be a ludicrously violent climax. Peyton breaks Michael’s legs with a shovel, beats Solomon (who has been stalking the family for a third act rescue, and not really putting that creepy pedophile vibe behind him) with a fireplace poker and knocks Claire briefly unconscious. The only member of the family who displays even the most rudimentary survival instincts is little Emma, who cleverly plays cat-and-mouse with Peyton long enough for the adults to stop being so goddamn useless. Deciding subtext is for pussies, Claire stabs Peyton with a kitchen knife and drops her on a white picket fence.
The film ends with Claire regaining the American dream: a dim bulb husband, a treacherous baby, a good daughter, and a possibly pervert uncle with a cruelly ironic name. Seriously, what kind of parent names their mentally challenged baby Solomon? That’s just messed up.
Life-Changing Subtext: Everyone is horrible. Even babies. Fuck that – especially babies. Opportunistic little bastards. Upon its release, this film was slammed as being misogynist, but that’s not true: it hates everyone equally. Every character is either stupid (Claire, Michael, and of course Solomon), evil (Peyton, Q), or treacherous (the fucking baby). This movie turns a baby into a traitor. I didn’t even think that was possible. The only sympathetic character is little Emma, and you know with those dumbass parents, she’s going to be screwed up.
Defining Quote: Michael: “She can’t get in. I have her keys.” He says this to Claire, unveiling his master plan for home security while standing in front of a giant glass window. Roughly five minutes later, Michael was lying in the basement with a couple broken legs. So you can see how that turned out.
Standout Performance: Rebecca De Mornay as Peyton the killer nanny. Rare among Yakmala movies, De Mornay is actually unironically good for the bulk of the movie. She treads the insanity line well, delivering her evil lines with barely contained rage. It isn’t until Sciorra punches her in the face that the character transforms from Lady MacBeth to Michael Myers minus the Shatner mask.
What’s Wrong: Other than the “babies are heartless opportunists” subtext, the entire plot of the film hinges on Michael being a complete and utter moron. Peyton is about as subtle as a brick to the head in her attempt to get Michael in the sack (at one point she goes after him in a soaking wet white nightgown), and he thinks she’s just being friendly. All the bad stuff going on is all a coincidence, and the best solution is to ignore his wife to play a boardgame with Emma and the nanny. In fact, several people instantly dislike Peyton, including Solomon and Julianne Moore. The only possible explanation for Michael’s behavior is that he has either Asperger’s or severe brain damage, but that’s never addressed in the script. It is amazing how much would be solved by including head trauma in that character’s backstory. Just watching him play every scene with a giant bandage on his head would be worth it.
Flash of Competence: Silver might be responsible for the film going off the rails in the third act, but she’s also responsible for the best part: Peyton’s plan. She doesn’t just bull her way in. The film takes its time, letting her establish the necessary trust for her scheme to work. When she frames Solomon, she doesn’t just plant Emma’s panties in his toolcase; she first lays the groundwork of establishing a “secret” with the little girl (a harmless one about staying up late and watching movies). She doesn’t just state flat out, “Hey, your husband is totally boinking Julianne Moore.” Instead, she creates a framework in which Michael will lie (a surprise party for his wife), makes some comments to Claire, and lets Claire’s natural insecurities do the rest. The script manages to avoid common pitfalls of the genre by insuring that a simple conversation wouldn’t clear everything up.
Best Scenes: Anything with Q was comedy gold. Just because the poor guy is always going to be Q, and playing creepy gynecologists is just plain funny if you pretend they’re only doing it to bug Picard.
Transcendent Moment: Claire holds the baby and he starts to cry. Peyton takes him and he calms down immediately. Stupid baby.
It’s not that The Hand that Rocks the Cradle is a horrible movie. It only becomes truly repellent in further analysis, but you have to respect the audacity of any film that casts a three-month-old baby as a villain. I’m hoping this leads to a trend of mustache-twirling babies obsessed with tying Elmo to some train tracks. Yeah, tickle that, bitch.
You see what this movie does to you?