Thursday, October 13, 2016

What Lies Beneath

I had never seen What Lies Beneath (2000) before watching it for this review, but I always known the general outline of the plot and the twists. That's because the previews at the time did all they could to spell everything for anyone interested in seeing the movie, but even if I hadn't, there's a good chance I still would have found it predictable.

Directed by Robert Zemeckis, What Lies Beneath has been described in some corners as a horror movie for people who don't watch horror movies, which I think is a fair assessment. Plot-wise, there's hardly anything original, and Zemeckis uses tricks and techniques one can find in any number of other movies. It's sleek and polished, expertly crafted, but what really elevates the movie is its two central performances, those of Michelle Pfeiffer and Harrison Ford.

Pfeiffer plays Claire Spencer, the wife of university-based researcher Norman, played by Ford. She's just sent her only daughter off to college and is feeling like an empty-nestor. Something seems to happen next door with the neighbors to keep her mind off that. After a couple of weird incidents, Claire becomes convinced the husband next door (James Remar) murdered his wife (Miranda Otto) and that the dead wife's spirit is trying to reach out to her, so Claire digs deeper to uncover the truth.

Claire seems to have the perfect life going for her, but over the course of the film, we learn more and realize it's not all bliss. Norman is her second husband; her first died when her daughter was young. When she married Norman, she retired as a concert cellist, and truth be told, she kind of resents that. Also, a year prior to the events of the movie, she was in a horrible car accident, and there are gaps in her memories.

The movie works best when it plays on ambiguity. Is Claire really encountering the ghost of a murdered woman or is all the stress and pressure getting to her? If it is a ghost, what does it want? Does it merely want to reach out, so Claire learns the truth, or does it have more nefarious motives?

The plot unfolds with twists and turns. The movie spends too much time on a few things that ultimately prove to be red herrings. I won't spoil which elements, but if you've seen the trailer, you already know what they are.

The production design on the movie is a plus. It's sleek and ornate. The Spencers live in nice house on a lake, and it's both beautiful and foreboding, the kind of place one could live comfortably and safely if not for buried secrets. The neighborhood is accessible only from a long, narrow bridge, and the isolated nature gives the film an almost modern Gothic touch. The fall setting adds to the atmosphere; the colored leaves and mist coming off the lake is gorgeous but cold and gloomy.

The main weakness of the film is Zemeckis' direction. Zemeckis has directed many wonderful motion pictures, including Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and Back to the Future, but he seems uncomfortable in macabre territory. Experienced genre fans will spot his shot setups and recognize immediately where the jump scare is coming from, like when the open fridge door is shut, thus exposing the previously unseen figure who was standing behind it hidden. He also is a fan of the mirror scare, the one where a dark figure is seen moving in the reflection. Technically, they're well done but predictable.

The true strength of the movie is Pfeiffer and Ford. They are completely believable as this seemingly happily married couple who have more kinks in their armor than they realize. Pfeiffer is splendid as someone trying her best to learn the truth and keep her emotions under control while at the same time questioning everything she thinks she knows. Ford, without giving too much away, perfectly plays up his image as the perfect, successful, all American husband only to gradually, slowly, chip that away, piece by piece.

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