Alan J. Pakula is perhaps best known for the trilogy of surveillance thrillers that he directed in the 1970s – Klute, All the President’s Men and The Parallax View. Yet he also directed a second trilogy of surveillance films in the 1990s, which reprised and revised the concerns of his 70s output in a more minor and qualified way – Presumed Innocent, Consenting Adults and The Pelican Way. All three of these films moved away from the stark standoffs between individual and government that preoccupied his 70s work, instead focusing on a more ad hoc and loosely distributed surveillant potential. Of these three films, Consenting Adults departs most dramatically from the surveillance mode, since it doesn’t contain any kind of political or systematic surveillance. Rather, it focuses on the nuclear couple as a form of surveillance, generating its narrative from the way that couples tend to regulate and remediate each other.
As if to firmly situate Consenting Adults within his surveillance canon despite the lack of any overt political narrative, Pakula starts by emphasising the studied sonic and visual qualities that characterise this part of his work. We start in medias res, with a brief opening scene that introduces composer Richard Parker, played by Kevin Kline, and his colleague and wife Priscilla, played by Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, during a tense moment at the advertising jingle corporation where they work. No sooner have we met this couple than Pakula cuts back to a much statelier credit sequence – a single 360-degree pan around what appears to be a relatively new, affluent suburban tract. All the chaos and jingly energy of the opening scene is completely absorbed into the naturalism of this shot, which is so elevated and distant that the sounds of the neighbour fade into a distant murmur, just above the threshold of audibility.
This combination of submerged sound and detached visuals was the sine qua non of Pakula’s surveillance style, and it’s resurrected in a more classical mode here than in either Presumed Innocent or The Pelican Brief. Before we can quite get a handle on it, or situate ourselves within the film’s spatial scheme, we’re introduced to Eddy and Kay Otis, played by Kevin Spacey and Rebecca Miller, as they move into the house next door to the Parkers. We’re then introduced to the suburb by way of this burgeoning friendship, which starts with Richard and Eddy jogging, and then cycling, around the complex, reiterating the same circuit that the camera sketches out in the credit sequence shot. These continuous circular movements present the tract as a kind of suburban panopticon, especially since Pakula emphasises vertical space – both through the recurring shots of pines and the high angle perspectives. At times, everything looks a little too artificial – the houses are so new that they look more like doll houses, while the grass hasn’t quite taken yet either, and remains a disarming yellow, mirroring Spacey’s conspicuously dyed hair, which unsettles the atmosphere from the start.
This eerie sense of space and place culminates with the windows that separate the two couples. For long stretches, it feels as if we’re also watching Consenting Adults through a picture window, as Pakula bathes everything in a glassy hush, a silence that is tactile as much as it is auditory. When Eddy invites the Parkers to his house in Charleston, Priscilla immediately gravitates towards his enormous picture window, which looks out on the harbour, and recommends that he take down some supporting walls to make the view even more expansive. Later on, Richard watches Priscilla through two separate panes of glass as she unpacks a series of shag carpet samples – a beautiful image for the film’s shiny muffling.
During the first act of the film, the friendship between the two couples accelerates rapidly, largely due to Eddy’s momentum, and his ability to wrap their shared suburban home around his agenda. After gathering Richard into his slipstream as he jogs and cycles around the tract, he embarks upon a series of increasingly hyperactive activities that draw the couples into the same centrifugal rhythm. He takes them out his sailboat, then he starts boxing with Richard, then he takes them out on his speedboat, then he arranges a baseball tournament. Finally, he runs headlong into Richard’s car, and then presents Richard with the insurance, revealing at the same time that he conducts insurance scams, in which the Parkers are now complicit. Throughout these vortical gestures of friendship, Pakula’s camera follows suit, tightening the panoptic radius of the credit sequence shot until we’re always flitting from couple to couple.
The result is a fascinating portrait of a certain kind of couple-friendship that preoccupied Baby Boomers as they reckoned with impending middle age in the 1990s. The Boomers were meant to be the generation that broke with middle-class norms of marriage and bourgeois stability, and the films of this era register a trauma at the possibility that they might have capitulated despite themselves. The “mid-life crisis,” as a phenomenon, was a symptom of this anxiety, as was the kind of couple-friendship on display here – paired friendships that act as a kind of contained flirtation. Both Richard and Priscilla need something outside their own coupled life, but they can’t quite think outside the institution of coupledom either, so the Otis’ seem to provide the perfect solution – a couple who are just edgy enough, and extravagant enough, to restore their own coupledom in the process as well. In effect, Richard and Priscilla use the Otis’ to regulate and relieve their own coupledrom, embarking on a couple-friendship that depends, for its very survival, on the expectation they will woo each others’ spouses a little.
The problem is that Eddy takes this a step too far, suggesting a wife-swap to Richard and then, when Richard resists, making the wife-swap a precondition for the friendship to continue. Yet Eddy isn’t a swinger either – he wants this wife-swap to happen in the middle of the night, without either of their wives quite waking up. Since men often make love to their wives when they are half-asleep, it should be no trouble, Otis reasons to Richard, to simply exchange bedrooms in the middle of the night, without their wives being any wiser. Finally, Richard agrees, and the result is the pivotal moment in the film – a genuinely weird sequence, and one of the best sequences in Pakula’s entire career, that manages to be preposterous and beautiful at the same time, shot through with a strange tranceline and dreamlike uncertainty.
It’s at this point that the thriller component of the erotic thriller really comes to the fore, as Richard only has the slightest beat to consider what happened at his own house before Kay’s body is found bludgeoned to death in her bedroom. Eddy has an alibi, Priscilla has no memory of Eddy ever being in her house that night, and Richard’s fingerprints are all over Priscilla. What ensues stretches credulity, but in the best and pulpiest way, as Richard is charged with the murder, but let out on bail, and Priscilla immediately shacks up with Eddy, without a moment’s consideration that her husband of ten years might be innocent of murder. Yet this abruptness really works, since it reflects the deeper assumption of couple-friendship – that the world can only be mediated through coupledom. As soon as Richard is out of the picture, and Priscilla and Eddy reconfigure themselves as a couple, it is as if they always were a couple, removing Richard to a glassy distance, and turning the third act into Kevin Kline’s solo vehicle.
For that reason, it doesn’t make sense, in the movie’s world, for Richard to just explain himself to Priscilla, or try to win her back (or exonerate himself) through conventional means. Instead, he sets up to thwart the space that Cody has erected around his coupledom. His first gesture, the morning after the murder, is to go for a run alone, and travel counter-clockwise around the housing estate, rather than the clockwise direction he normally took with Cody. From there, the only way he can get a handle on Cody, who also doubles down on his spatial control of Priscilla, is to observe the two of them across vast stretches of water – first a lake, then the open ocean – before making contact with Priscilla against the backdrop of a gleaming estuary. This spatial struggle gathers around the triangular prow of Cody’s Charleston property – a bank of massive picture windows that look out to a point of land that juts into the sea – while we find out that Cody’s scheme was conceived on a lake, making Richard’s job even harder.
As Cody and Richard compete for this contested space, Pakula responds with some of the most ravishing compositions of his career. Space itself becomes more exotic and stylised as the two men struggle to rein it into their own respective narratives of coupledom, culminating with the hotel where Richard finally finds Kay, who is still alive. The lobby of this hotel is a 1940s pastiche that undoes the naturalism of the film’s previous spaces, setting us adrift in a weird abstracted temporality that finds concrete form in Kay’s room – a self-contained house that is somehow perched right on the top of the building, and only accessible from the roof. This collapse of simulation and reality filters over into the story, as Kay confirms that she wasn’t the murdered woman in Cody’s room, only for Richard to return and find her murdered in exactly the same way. In this moment of acute schism, Richard glances over to the neighbouring building – a 70s carpark that seems straight out of All the President’s Men – as the spatial field of the film threatens to fall apart and collapse back into Pakula’s earlier work.
Consenting Adults thus charts the way in which the white nuclear couple operates as a way of regulating other couples – and the shared spaces that they construct and inhabit. The particular importance of whiteness in this equation creeps up on you gradually, and is never fully articulated – at least not directly. Pakula anchors the first night that the Otis’ host the Parker’s with a shot of Cody’s hands that are lit to look African-American, before introducing Kay as she sings “No Headstone on My Grave,” a bluesey number that was written by Charlie Rich, but popularised by Esther Phillips. Cody’s first invitation to swing comes at a nightclub where Kay sings Bobby Bland, while Richard returns to the Otis household after receiving bail for the murder charge, expecting to find Cody, but instead encountering insurance investigator David Duttonville, played by Forest Whittaker, who guides him through the third act of the film, embedding the story back into his blacker version of suburbia in the process.
There’s an unspoken awareness, then, that the surveillance of suburban couplehood depends partly upon excluding or absorbing the possibility of black suburbia. The key forensic object in Richard’s trajectory is a bluesy rendition of “No Headstone on My Grave” that he hears on the radio while driving alone at night, shortly after Priscilla shacks up with Otis. Not only is he sure that the bluesey voice he’s hearing is white, but that the voice belongs to Kay, proving that she must still be alive. Proving the veracity and validity of this white appropriation of the blues – a double appropriation, given the original track was by Charlie Rich – becomes synonymous with Richard’s investigation, while also collapsing the glassy silences of the film into the analog graininess so typical of classic blues recordings. By the end, it feels like Richard and Cody are competing for the pregnant silence of blues music while eliding the actual music, brokering African-American absence into a new kind of heightened white presence, until the lyrics of Rich’s song are divorced from any historicity and merely outline the plot of the film.
The convergence of the film’s glassy vistas with this parsing of the space between blues utterances turns Consenting Adults into an eerie meditation on the presumed iterability of the white suburban couple. Everything about coupledom here is both infinitely repeatable and strangely submerged, right down to the final shot, which sees Richard and Priscilla resume their relationship as soon as Cody is out of the picture – and as quickly as Cody and Richard hooked up when Richard seemed out of the picture. We end with another house, this time surrounded by the first truly green grass we’ve seen in the film, but as the camera pans out, and the shot gets wider and wider, the house looks more and more artificial, less and less plausible. Finally, we’re far enough to see the grass fade to yellow again around the fringes of what turns out to be a massive field – yet another abstraction of suburban homeliness that is yellow around the edges, not quite realised, adrift in the spatial voids that Pakula did so well.