Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (September 6, 2012)
With others like Fatal Attraction and The Roommate, the “crazy, vindictive female” genre doesn’t give us a ton of entries, but it does provide some memorable hits. 1992’s The Hand That Rocks the Cradle emerged as one of these and probably made it tough for nannies to get work.
When Claire Bartel (Annabella Sciorra) becomes pregnant, she goes to a new gynecologist, Dr. Victor Mott (John de Lancie). She feels that he sexually abused her during her office visit so she files a complaint. This leads to additional claims from other women and heads toward a hearing, but before that can happen, Mott kills himself – and the trauma leads his wife (Rebecca De Mornay) to miscarry her own baby.
Because Claire launched the investigation, Mrs. Mott blames her for her husband’s death and the miscarriage, so she seeks to get revenge. Posing as “Peyton Flanders”, Mrs. Mott applies for the position as the Bartel family’s nanny. Claire thinks Peyton feels like a terrific match and hires her. Big mistake, as Peyton plans to use the position to get revenge on Claire.
When I put the Blu-ray in my player, I took a quick look at the film’s plot summary on IMDB as a story reminder. This tells us about the abuse investigation and Mrs. Mott’s miscarriage, which bothered me. I figured that this information would emerge late in the movie and felt that the summary gave us spoilers.
Nope – we see Mrs. Mott early, so when “Peyton” shows up at the Bartel abode, we already know that she’s not who she claims to be. That choice surprised me, as it ruined some potential drama/revelations.
Though it does set up a different kind of thriller. Clearly influenced by Hitchcock, the structure uses the “ticking time bomb” form of tension; we know there’s an explosion on the horizon and we wait for the protagonists to do something to prevent it. Peyton’s the ticking bomb that no one realizes is set to blow.
Is that format better, worse or the same than a story in which Peyton’s role is left less clear? That’s up for the viewer to decide, but I can’t help but think Hand would work better with a more low-key approach. Yes, in this version, the film can allow Peyton to present a more interesting personality – and De Mornay has a ball as she digs into her inner bitch.
Unfortunately, this makes the movie too one-sided – and creates an odd situation in which we essentially see events from Peyton’s POV. Normally we’d go through Claire’s eyes, but because she’s in the dark so much of the time, we tend to focus on a Peyton-centered experience.
Because the movie wants to have it both ways, this doesn’t work. While we see Peyton’s nastiness, we also have many scenes that portray Claire in emotional breakdown mode. With a less-defined Peyton character, Claire’s experiences would resonate more clearly; the audience would get left off-guard and feel unsure what to think. With a non-clearly-evil Peyton, we wonder if Claire’s losing it or if Peyton’s as insidious as she believes.
The final product doesn’t allow such subtleties and beats us over the head with its one-dimensional characters and themes. That doesn’t mean it’s not fun; again, De Mornay is a delight as the unhinged Peyton.
However, it makes the results awfully predictable, and that’s not a good recipe for a thriller. Some genres work just fine even when we can easily foresee plot points – has anyone over the age of three ever been surprised by a Disney happy ending? – but others need more of an edge. With thin characters and story elements that can be viewed far in advance, Hand lacks the surprise factor and suffers for it.