As Peyton Flanders, the demented nanny in "The Hand That Rocks the Cradle," Rebecca De Mornay has a picture-perfect prettiness. She's so perfect she's creepy: With her taut alabaster features and blank, lustrous eyes, Peyton is like a sci-fi version of the corn-fed girl-next-door. She's transcendent and soulless; the only time you register a real person ticking behind the mask is when her eyes glaze over in rapt, crazed calculation.
As '90s movies heroines go, the murderous nanny is a great sick joke. She craves the perfect all-American family so much that she's willing to kill for it. Peyton is the right temptress for the post-yuppie generation, the generation that supposedly sacrificed family for career. In the serpentine way in which she insinuates herself into the placid home life of Michael and Claire Bartel (Matt McCoy and Annabella Sciorra), Peyton is like the bad conscience of her generation, a living nightmare of what can happen to parents who allow their children to slip away from their controls. She's also a parody of those controls--she thinks she can murder her way into the American ideal.
At its best, "The Hand That Rocks the Cradle" (citywide) is a bright, nasty psychological thriller with a joker up its sleeve. The director, Curtis Hanson, has a wicked flair. He uses the pristine rural Tacoma locations for their Norman Rockwell-ish overtones, but, like Peyton, everything looks just a little bit too perfect: the picket fences and trimmed lawns and birdhouses are storybook bright. When Peyton is ensconced in the Bartel's old, restored, beauty of a house, its higgledy-piggledy charm turns sinister.
This switcheroo is a well-worn tactic in thrillers ranging from Hitchcock's "Shadow of a Doubt" to Joseph Ruben's "The Stepfather," and "The Hand That Rocks the Cradle" (rated R for violence, sex and language) isn't in their class. Amanda Silver's script doesn't have the arching wit or the deviousness of those films; from moment to moment it's surprising but the overall design is predictable. And there are sections, such as a subplot involving Ernie Hudson as a mentally impaired handyman, that seem like they came out of a "Firesign Theater" revamp of "Of Mice and Men."
But the film isn't just a well-made TV-style thriller either. It's on to something--the way upwardly mobile parents, hoping to make their lives more professionally fulfilling, unwittingly bring the danger of the unknown into their lives. Peyton's reasons for striking out against Claire are twisted yet comprehensible; she holds Claire responsible for the loss of her own family and child (the reasons for this are spelled out in the film's first 20 minutes) and so her awesome skills as a nanny are double-edged. She ingratiates herself as a form of conquest. When Peyton sneaks into the Bartels' nursery in the middle of the night to nurse their new-born baby, she's playing out a mother's nightmare while enacting her own ripest fantasy. Peyton is the Iago of the piece, Claire the Othello, and the sexual politics are primal. The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world.
If the movie had demonstrated how the Bartels could so blithely bring a stranger into the inner sanctum of their lives, it would have been even creepier--and funnier. The movie would have been richer if there had been the suggestion that, perhaps unconsciously, the Bartels secretly craved this horror. But, the way it's been done, it doesn't really add up that Claire would hire someone so attractive without even a twinge of misgiving; nor does it seem believable that, in the early stages, Peyton's presence would have so little effect on Michael. But then again, Michael is a bit of a stick in the film; he's one of the pawns that the script sacrifices in order to clarify the combat between the two women.
Is there something reactionary about that combat? In "Fatal Attraction," to which this film is being compared, the point was: If you fool around you'll pay the piper. In "The Hand That Rocks the Cradle," the fact that both women are, in a sense, victims, doesn't really factor into the fireworks. There's no irony underpinning their torments, and in the end, the audience can feel relieved because a beast has been felled.
But Rebecca De Mornay's performance is so fiercely felt that she makes you sympathize with the beast. When the Bartel's five-year-old daughter (Madeline Zima) tells Peyton in confidence that a boy at school has threatened her, Peyton's response is heroically cracked: Showing up at the schoolyard, she strides Terminator-style up to the pipsqueak bully and puts the fear of God into him. It's a child's fantasy and a parent's fantasy all rolled into one. You've got to admire a woman like that.
Just don't hire her.
'The Hand That Rocks the Cradle"
Annabella Sciorra: Claire
Rebecca De Mornay: Peyton
Matt McCoy: Michael
Ernie Hudson: Solomon
A Buena Vista release of a Hollywood Pictures presentation. Director Curtis Hanson. Producer David Madden. Executive producers Ted Field, Rick Jaffa and Robert Cort. Screenplay by Amanda Silver. Cinematographer Robert Elswit. Editor John F. Link. Costumes Jennifer Mayrhauser. Music Graeme Revell. Production design Edward Pisoni. Art director Mark Zuelzke. Set designer Gilbert Wong. Set decorator Sandy Reynolds Wasco. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.
MPAA-rated R (for violence, sexual molestation and language).