What Lies Beneath
Screenplay : Clark Gregg (story by Clark Gregg & Sarah Kernochan)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2000
Stars : Harrison Ford (Norman), Michelle Pfeiffer (Claire), Katharine Towne (Caitlin), Miranda Otto (Mary)
It is rare when I find myself standing completely apart from the majority of the critical community in responding to a particular film, but frankly I cannot understand why so many critics have taken such delight in lambasting "What Lies Beneath," Robert Zemeckis' over-the-top supernatural homage to Alfred Hitchcock.
Criticized for having both too much and too little story (either the plot is too thick or it's too predictable or, sometimes, both), this genre-bending exercise in cinematic suspense is by no stretch of the imagination a great film, but it is certainly entertaining, well-made, and never boring. That one esteemed critic went so far as to call it "a cinematic disaster" is only the most extreme indication of how negative the critical reaction has been, yet when I saw it, the spectators in the theater were scared, tense, and relieved in all the right places. In other words, they experienced exactly what director Robert Zemeckis and screenwriter Clark Gregg intended them to experience: They had a good time.
It is true that the plotline of "What Lies Beneath" suffers because of the film's misguided marketing campaign, which revealed for no good reason in the trailer a major plot turn that effectively renders the first third of the film impotent if you know what it is. This was unfortunate and shameful behavior on the part of the DreamWorks marketing department, and those who missed the trailer will have a richer experience watching the film because some of the major surprises will be exactly that: surprises.
The main characters are Norman (Harrison Ford), a successful geneticist who is on the verge of a major breakthrough, and his wife, Claire (Michelle Pfeiffer), who gave up her profession as a cellist in order to raise their daughter and support Norman's work. When the film begins, they are taking their daughter to college for the first time, and Claire is left with empty-nest syndrome. This may be why she takes particular interest in their new neighbors, who fight as loud as they have sex. It isn't long before the "Rear Window" (1954) homage is in full gear, with Claire watching her neighbors through binoculars and suspecting that foul play is afoot.
The main focus of the film is supernatural, though, with the presence of a mysterious woman haunting Claire at her home. A particular picture falls to the floor, the front door breathes itself open, a bathtub upstairs mysteriously fills itself with steaming water, voices whisper in the dark. These events happen only to Claire, and Norman is less than understanding because he feels that Claire's experiences are simply a way for her to bring attention to herself and distract him from his work. Not knowing whether these experiences are real or imagined, Claire becomes determined to find out who the ghost is and what she wants.
There is more, much more, to the plot than this, but to detail any further would risk ruining the experience more than the trailer has already done. Like any of Hitchcock's best films (especially "Vertigo" and "Psycho"), the enjoyment in "What Lies Beneath" is waiting to find out what's next, even though many of the plot developments are, quite honestly, a bit predictable.
Yet, is that always a significant flaw? In their pressing demands to be completely surprised at every turn, I think many critics ignore the notion that familiarity can be an enjoyable aspect of watching a genre film. Does every great suspense-thriller have a "Sixth Sense"-like head-spinner up its sleeve? From the way they are writing about "What Lies Beneath," many critics seem to think that it should have. Yet, take a look at one of this film's major inspirations: Hitchcock's "Rear Window." Is there a movie that is more predictable that that? "Rear Window" has many red herrings and false leads, yet the answer to the mystery is, in the end, the most obvious one. Thus, the enjoyment of the experience is getting there, not the final destination.
This, I would argue, is why "What Lies Beneath" is not even remotely as bad as some critics are making it out to be. Robert Zemeckis ("Forrest Gump," "Contact") has apparently always wanted to make a Hitchcockian thriller, and he has obviously studied up on the great master's camera moves and use of sound and timing. There are a number of solid "boo" moments, and Zemeckis makes expert use of the frame (much as John Carpenter did in "Halloween"), turning every camera pan into a tense question of "What will pop out next?" Some people hate that kind of suspense because, in all truth, it's too easy. A slow pan, a sudden burst of strings on the soundtrack, and the effect is achieved. Yet, it's a staple of the genre, and it functions to keep the audience wary for bigger things down the road.
But, jump-out-of-the-dark tactics are hardly the only techniques Zemeckis employs. For instance, there is one particularly harrowing scene near the end that takes place in a bathtub slowly filling with water, and a character who has been paralyzed with a drug must figure out a way to get the drain open before drowning. Zemeckis doesn't overload the scene with music and clutter; instead, he lets it play out slowly and quietly, taking us inside the character's head and giving us both a visual and an aural point-of-view that sticks us right down in the filling bathtub. It's a moment of which Hitchcock would be proud because it works perfectly.
Some critics have also jumped all over the end of the film: preposterous, ridiculous, laugh-inducing, silly. To a certain extent, I agree. The plot does become quite labored in the last ten minutes as it desperately attempts to bring everything full circle and take the characters to the scene of an earlier crime, and here the supernatural aspect takes an astounding turn into the potentially ludicrous. It turns out that "What Lies Beneath" is primarily a from-the-grave tale of revenge, essentially one of those potboilers that appeared in old EC comics like "Tales From the Crypt" drawn out to 127 minutes. A flaw? Possibly. Detrimental to the whole the film? Hardly.
Outside of Zemeckis' technical (if not particularly personal) expertise, the film also works largely on Pfeiffer's performance. Despite Harrison Ford being given top billing, Pfeiffer's Claire is truly the main character, and it is with her that we identify as she goes through the trauma of doubting her own sanity before diving headfirst into a solving a mystery that might not exist in the first place.
©2000 James Kendrick