*** (A must-see)

Directed by Curtis Hanson

Written by Amanda Silver

With Annabella Sciorra, Rebecca De Mornay, and Matt McCoy.

The only trouble that’s interesting is the trouble you ask for. That’s a basic rule of thriller construction that Curtis Hanson has followed since his first low-budget effort from the early 70s, The Arousers. As a writer (The Silent Partner) and director (The Bedroom Window, Bad Influence), Hanson has concocted morally coherent and dramatically intense thrillers that never quite clicked with the public. The commercial possibilities of each were sabotaged by commercial pigeonholing, studio economic troubles, or, in the case of Bad Influence, the casting of an actor whose thin credibility had just been destroyed by a juvenile (in every sense) sex scandal.

In these last three films Hanson concentrated on character, establishing a series of unwilling protagonists who find that a flirtation with sin has unexpected and disproportionate consequences. In The Silent Partner a bank teller uses his foreknowledge of a bank robbery to squirrel some cash away for himself, then becomes the victim of the psychopathic robber’s vengeance. In The Bedroom Window a smug architect, trying to play hero in front of the woman with whom he’s having an adulterous affair, lands in the middle of a serial murder case. And in Bad Influence, a yuppie’s brush with LA’s fashionable underground puts him in the role of fall guy in a murder. Each time the hero could have avoided his problems if he had not sought a little managed naughtiness.

Not so in The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, a lesser film that nevertheless appears to be the long-awaited commercial success Hanson deserves. In this film the good are good, the bad are bad–the two never meet within one character. Lately filmmakers who have demonstrated talent at making complex low-budget thrillers have been hired to direct simpleminded big-budget thrillers (e.g. Joe Ruben, who went from The Stepfather to Sleeping With the Enemy, in which money and intelligence are in inverse ratio). Hanson wasn’t able to bring himself to strip away every iota of intellectual potential from this project, but what is left is not terribly engaging–ultimately the film can be enjoyed mostly as an exercise in technique.

It opens promisingly. Annabella Sciorra plays Claire Bartel, an upper-middle-class housewife pregnant with her second child. During a visit to a new obstetrician she realizes that the doctor is using the excuse of a gynecological examination to sexually abuse her and reports him to the police. When other women come forward, the doctor commits suicide.

We soon see the late doctor’s wife (Rebecca De Mornay) having a stressful encounter with her attorneys, who tell her that she won’t get any insurance money following her husband’s death and that all his assets are being frozen because of pending lawsuits. She collapses and suffers a miscarriage, and must then have a hysterectomy.

Consumed with a hunger for revenge, the doctor’s widow rechristens herself Peyton and six months later takes a job with the Bartels as their new nanny. Insanely methodic, she begins to usurp Claire’s role in the family, secretly suckling their newborn, trading secrets with their six-year-old daughter, framing the simpleminded but suspicious handyman (Ernie Hudson) by planting evidence that he’s a pedophile, and driving a wedge between Claire and her scientist husband, Michael (Matt McCoy). Until, of course, her true identity is found out, when it becomes knife-and-poker time.

For a film with such a limited plot, there’s a wealth of pleasing detail. De Mornay and Sciorra are both competent actresses, but they tend to be calculating and closed off. Hanson turns these shortcomings into advantages: De Mornay’s reserve becomes a symbol of her secretiveness, and Sciorra’s unbridled assurance a token of her wifely privilege. Hanson’s sense of place is sure, and he presents a complete layout of the Bartels’ house in a pithy sequence under the credits. The equation between house and woman is unforced and appropriate–Claire’s household is cluttered and warm but full of dark passages, Peyton’s is empty and barren.

Hanson doesn’t take any plot shortcuts either. We know right from the start who Peyton is and what she’s up to. The film even plays fair with our sympathies as it carefully depicts the brutality and indifference that accompany her widowhood and tragic miscarriage.

However, it is during the bloody miscarriage that the film takes on a troubling aspect. Obviously, by taking on a different name Peyton undergoes a transformation from widow to witch. Unfortunately, the symbol of that monstrous change resides in her inability to have children. As long as she’s pregnant, the film sympathizes with her; but when she loses her baby and her ability to conceive another child she becomes truly awful.

Claire doesn’t seem to have much to offer except her fecundity. Having given birth, she immediately shifts her attention to building a greenhouse in her backyard. It’s an obvious symbol of fertility–its architectural peculiarities are also cleverly worked into the plot–and becomes a symbol of Claire’s moral position. When she and Peyton pay a visit to a large arboretum greenhouse, Peyton has a seemingly unmotivated fit in the ladies’ room, bashing away at the walls with a broom handle in a frightening rage. This is one battleground where Peyton seems at a disadvantage.

The problem is, why is this battle raging? Peyton may be the monstrous residue of a young woman robbed of her childbearing ability, and Claire the self-satisfied modern caricature of a woman who gives birth and then doesn’t raise her children–but so what? Claire didn’t do anything to bring Peyton’s wrath down on her. She reported a sex crime, the criminal killed himself, and his deranged wife seeks revenge. All that’s left is pure mechanics.

Except Hanson won’t leave it at that. But he can’t turn to character for the answer. Perhaps because this is a Disney film and Disney doesn’t like to field morally ambiguous characters, or perhaps because of an underwritten screenplay, Claire is incapable of an act that betrays any repressed dangerous desires. So Hanson turns to symbolism and, indirectly, to theology. The greenhouse, which goes from being a nurturing place to a murder site, is assembled slowly throughout the film, its construction coinciding with Peyton’s increased influence within the household. The glassed-in enclosure, which mimics in miniature the huge house in front of it, also comes to symbolize Claire’s abandonment of her traditional responsibilities–which provides Peyton with her opening.

Claire is being punished, apparently, for having innocently become a bad wife and mother. Preferring a small and private home to her family’s many-roomed house, Claire relinquishes her position–first voluntarily, then ineluctably–to her monster mirror image, Peyton. The climactic attempted murder of her family becomes Claire’s opportunity for redemption, aided by the aptly named handyman, Solomon.

Since Peyton’s deformation was entirely out of her hands–not only did she marry a suicidal sex pervert and suffer a miscarriage, but she’s also an orphan–her motivations are out of her hands as well. She is a vehicle for fate, a fate that believes in some sort of natural order. A psychopathic Jeremiah, she eventually shows Claire how to regain her natural position in life.

This is not a very happy worldview. Hanson does seem to have a characteristic disdain for adulterers, but aside from that he hasn’t particularly hewed to an unhappy worldview in the past. Here it seems to be the result of his seeking any thematic port in a narrative storm.

But Hanson deserves more than such reductive material. Many of even his simplest shots hint at a larger vision and a more human scale. When, for example, Claire investigates the death of her friend and discovers Peyton’s old house and her true identity, she runs from the house toward her car. Hanson films her escape from high above, Claire running from the hilltop house in the foreground of a vista that opens up to take in a vast expanse of an unhelpful, unseeing urban spread. The loneliness and terror expressed in that shot go beyond any mere notion of divinely enforced nuclear-family structures.