What Lies Beneath (2000)
Directed by Robert Zemeckis
Cast: Michelle Pfeiffer, Harrison Ford, Diana Scarwid, Miranda Otto, James Remar, Joe Morton, Wendy Crewson, Amber Valletta, Katharine Towne.
2000 130 minutes
Rated: (for profanity, violence, and sexual situations).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, July 22, 2000.
"What Lies Beneath," directed by Academy Award winning filmmaker Robert Zemeckis (1994's "Forrest Gump"), is so very good in so many scenes that it almost makes you angry the movie is hampered by an uneven, flawed screenplay. In teaming with A-list actors Michelle Pfeiffer and Harrison Ford, Zemeckis has set out to create a mature, sophisticated supernatural thriller, and his visual talents are consistently at the forefront of the picture. The movie is quietly taut, eerie, and deliberately paced, as it gradually builds momentum to a climactic twist that not only is difficult to swallow, but leaves a sour taste in your mouth once the end credits roll. Still, despite the disappointing finale, the film is undeniably suspenseful and beautiful to look at, and that is the complication with not being able to wholeheartedly recommend "What Lies Beneath." It does its job more than effectively, but, if the superbly paced first hour is any indication, it could have clearly turned out to be so much more than the cliched "Friday the 13th" knockoff it resorts to.
Claire Spencer (Michelle Pfeiffer) and her husband, Dr. Norman Spencer (Harrison Ford), are a happily married couple living in an idyllic waterside home off the coast of Vermont. With their daughter Caitlin (Katharine Towne) away at college, and Norman often at work for long hours into the night, Claire suddenly find herself home alone for much of the time, without anyone to rely on her, and with little to get into. That is when she begins to witness doors opening and closing by themselves, and pictures abruptly falling. The bathtub keeps mysteriously filling up with water without anyone around to have done it, and the computer keeps getting turned on. Claire starts to suspect that their house is being haunted by a young, blonde woman who looks a great deal like herself, and with her next-door neighbor (Miranda Otto) having strangely disappeared, she thinks she knows the entity she is being visited by.
As is sometimes the unfortunate case in the thriller-horror genre, the setup of promised greater things to come is far stronger than the final outcome. Such is the trap that "What Lies Beneath" falls into. The opening sixty minutes, which is primarily a one-character show, as we follow Claire through her lingering days at the house by herself, and the increasingly supernatural and frightening things that begin to occur to her, is somewhat deceptive, for when twists and characters are brought up in the film, they disappear almost as quickly as they appear. And the plot development concerning Claire's suspicions about her neighbors is only present to bide its time while it turns up the fire and reveals its more complicated and extravagant (but not necessarily more successful) master plan.
With the exception of possibly 1992's "Batman Returns," Michelle Pfeiffer has never been more confident and powerful in a performance as she is here. As the increasingly paranoid and scared Claire, Pfeiffer never overplays any of her scenes, appropriately donning a tricky balancing act between believing the things she sees, and wondering if she is possibly delusional. She is a sympathetic protagonist, a woman in her forties who begins to realize how she has traded in her chances as a great cellist for almost the last twenty years, to instead raise a family and support her husband's work. Seemingly setting itself up to be an allegory of a woman who comes to terms with the choices she has made in her life, but recognizes that it's never to late to start over, the film disappoints on this level also, once again not following through with a subplot it has brought up.
Although top-billed, Harrison Ford constantly plays second fiddle, but holds his own remarkably well in many of his scenes with the radiant Pfeiffer. Ford portrays Norman as a caring husband who, nonetheless, simply isn't around nearly enough, and has made many mistakes in his past that he regrets (one of which plays a key role in the film, as well as in the misleading advertising campaign).
The supporting cast all equip themselves amicably, but each of them are wasted and not given a full character to develop. Diana Scarwid (1981's "Mommie Dearest") is vibrantly unconventional, but sorely underused, as Claire's best friend, Jody. The same goes for Miranda Otto (1997's "Love Serenade"), as troubled neighbor Mary Feur; James Remar, as Mary's no-nonsense husband, Warren; and Katharine Towne, as Claire and Norman's daughter, Caitlin, who exits after the first five minutes and never reappears or is heard from again. Strengthening the supporting characters, or deleting many of them altogether, would surely have done a world of good in Gregg Clark's misguided screenplay, which relies heavily on plot twists and jumpy scary scenes, where someone enters the frame suddenly and there is a startling musical sting.
Where director Zemeckis does excel is in building up the tension, and if the movie is never truly scary, it does leave you on the edge of your seat on more than one occasion. It's strange, really, how even during the concluding twenty minutes, when things grow increasingly preposterous and the concluding twist feels more like a betrayal than a genuine surprise, Zemeckis uses his camera in a sly way that heightens the suspense even when that aspect should be falling apart too. One silent sequence that is set in a bathtub is a technical masterpiece, where just the subtle use of running water makes you want to grasp onto the theater seat's armrest. And another moment, in which the camera swings down to shoot below the floorboards, is almost awe-inspiring.
Everything in "What Lies Beneath" seems to be in place to create a rare supernatural thriller that not only works on a visceral level, but is also intelligent and classy, yet screenwriter Clark botches its chances. While the slasher movie-style finale is entertaining, simply to see such big stars involved in carrying it out, couldn't the movie have remained more of a psychological telling, rather than a violent and ghastly one? All could have been forgiven, however, with a satisfying epilogue, one that stays true to the character of Claire, a woman we as an audience have grown attached to, but the film unexpectedly ends with very few explanations or answers given. Whereas the viewer should walk away from a motion picture like "What Lies Beneath" with a giddy, satisfied feeling inside, all we are ultimately left with is the question, "What was the point?"
©2000 by Dustin Putman