During the early 90s, there was a convergence of theatrical releases and daytime melodramas. As directors looked for new ways to cement the lush aesthetic that was all the rage, they drew on the beautifully appointed interiors of daytime television, importing many of their plot points and narrative devices as well. The result was a kind of highbrow melodrama – releases helmed by “serious” directors, starring “serious” actors, but indebted to the contorted fabulations of the Lifetime soap. Of all of these, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle may have had the most sophisticated and spectacular spatial scheme, to the point that it plays as visual deconstruction of just what was at stake in these melodramas to begin with.
The film opens with a vision of pellucid interiority – an empty house, tastefully appointed, largely decked out in white, that we soon learn is in a Puget Sound neighbourhood just south of Seattle. As the credits roll, the camera takes us through every room, opening and closing with the same establishing-shot of the house, while a languorous version of “Poor Wandering One” plays over the top. We also glimpse a poster for The Pirates of Penzance in the living room, evoking a manic Gilbert and Sullivan intensity beneath all this luxuriating calm. Later on we learn that the couple who lives here, Claire Bartel (Annabella Sciorra) and Michael Bartel (Matt McCoy) had sex in every room when they moved in. Some of that sexual intensity percolates into the Gilbert and Sullivan refrain, but suggests it has also moved into a more muted register – that the McCoys’ domestic life has taken on a more sombre tonality of late.
If the opening credits elaborate the interior of the house, then the first scene dramatises the thresholds of this house, as we shift to two disruptions of the stately serenity of it all. First, a disembodied black hand knocks on the door, and promptly disappears. Then, Claire puts on the blender in the kitchen, disrupting the calm with a high-pitched screeching that prevents her hearing the knock on the door. As a result, this black man is forced to come around to the kitchen window, where Claire screams, he hesitates, and then heads back to the front door. Only then does Claire realise that he is Solomon (he is the only character in the film without a surname), an intellectually disabled man, played by Ernie Hudson, from the Better Way society, an organisation that provides people in his situation with work in the community. He’s here to help the Bartels construct an even more elaborate fence around their property. When he asks Claire “Do you want the fence to keep people in or keep people out?” she hesitates, thinks for a bit, and answers: “Well, both – but mostly it should keep people out.”
With the interior and thresholds of the house taken care of, the following scene dramatizes the thresholds of Claire’s own body. Immediately after this exchange with Solomon, she heads to her gynaecologist to check up on the status of her pregnancy. He proceeds to assault her, feeling her up from breasts to groin, in a scene that is every bit as methodical and systematic as the opening outline of the house. This scene is especially eerie given what we now know about Sciorra’s assault at the hands of Harvey Weinstein, and it gives way to the most spatially anxious shot so far: a direct aerial perspective of Claire as she comes out of the doctor’s office and descends the stairs. At the same time, her assault produces immediately body reactions – she’s a serious asthmatic, and she has a attack right away, as her chest closes down in shock.
These three opening sequences set the scene for a film that is peculiarly paranoid about bodily and domestic thresholds – about the ways that body violations ramify spatialliy, and the ways that spatial violations ramify physiologically. In a kind of compressed second act, we now cut to the doctor committing suicide, and the wife of the doctor, played by Rebecca De Mornay, being told that she’s penniless. She immediately goes into premature labour, bleeding from the groin, losing the child, and requiring an emergency hysterectomy. Meanwhile, Curtis Hanson, and screenwriter Amanda Silver, remove virtually all of the legal and media discourse that led to these two events. We know that Claire spoke out against the doctor, and that a whole host of other women followed suit, but the film is mainly interested in the scar that the assault leaves on these two bodies – the body of the wife and the body of the victim. When we next see the doctor’s wife, she’s disguised as a nanny, “Peyton Flanders,” turning up at Claire’s house and inducing Claire to hire her without knowing her true identity.
This ushers in the main part of the film – the sustained third act – as Peyton proceeds to take her revenge against Claire for speaking out against her husband, although the nature of that revenge remains oblique for some time. All we can tell for sure is that it will involve the domestic and bodily thresholds that are dramatized so vividly in the opening act of the film. In daytime melodrama of this era, these thresholds had two main ingredients – glass and foliage, and typically revolved around picture windows set against lush river towns (frequently the Hudson Valley, but in this case Puget Sound). These are the thresholds that constitute Claire’s domestic project, while her husband Michael forms an uneasy bridge between her safety within them and the outside world as represented by the predatory doctor. Like the doctor, Michael is a scientist in the area of body modification, yet his work as a cutting-edge genetic engineer who deals with both human and botanic genomes means his work continues the spatial logic of his home too – plants and glass partitions in all directions.
It makes sense, then, that Claire deals with her violation by constructing a greenhouse in her backyard – a literal conflation of glass and green, glass and foliage. She only hires Peyton as a nanny so that she can take time out from parenting to work on this greenhouse – it’s her way of condensing and reiterating the splendid picture windows of her actual home. Similarly, when Peyton introduces herself with a loosely fictionalised version of her backstory, Claire inchoately glimpses that they are dealing with the same thwarted thresholds. Instead of comforting her in a normal manner, she reassures Peyton by telling her about the greenhouse, as if aware that it constitutes a shared project between them in some odd way.
Yet this greenhouse is not entirely or exclusively a response to the assault either. For one thing, it’s a continuation of the new fence, which was also a way of re-erecting the boundaries of the house. In fact, we learn that Claire had many of these projects prior to the assault. Before even thinking of constructing a greenhouse of her own, she volunteered at a local Seattle greenhouse for many years. Similarly, her family has been putting a little birdhouse in the garden to attract the same migrating family of martins for many seasons now. Even Solomon recognises the connection, pointing out to Claire that “it looks just like your house.”
These earlier projects suggests that Claire’s domestic anxieties preceded the assault, even if they were enhanced by it, and that the greenhouse, like the new fence at the start, is just the latest stage in an ongoing process – a process of refining and elasticising thresholds. iIn the film’s vision this is the middle-class melodramatic project. Claire is continually searching for innovative ways to make her thresholds glassier and greener, more porous to the outside world, while nevertheless keeping them in place as boundaries. She’s looking for glass that appears to be open space, windows that don’t appear to be windows – ways of bringing the outside world in without being suffocated by it, or succumbing to her terrible asthma attacks.
The film makes it clear that this is partly a shared project, and that middle-class sociability consists of articulating and exploring these porous thresholds in broader groups. After all, Michael, Claire’ husband, works in a microbiology office that intensifies these brilliant green plants and multifarious glass partitions – we first see him meeting Peyton at work through a massive picture window that reflects the trees outside. Similarly, Claire’s best friend Marlene Craven, played by Julianne Moore, works in real estate, and relishes inside knowledge about local properties, thereby forming a kind of threshold in herself of what Claire’s social circle can know about the domestic lives and spaces of others. More generally, most of the key moments in the film take place through or around windows, as Hanson strives to set the action right on the blink of Claire’s suburban proprioception – the point where her domestic space subliminally segues into the domestic space of her neighbours (and of her new nanny).
It’s notable that this domestic project needs a magical negro, or even a slave, as part of the fantasy, since Solomon would be far more overt as a slave archetype if the story were set in the Deep South, rather than on Puget Sound. As a result, there’s something quite primal about all the black-white encounters here, from Peyton threatening Solomon (“don’t fuck with me, retard”) to the family fondly condescending to him, to Claire expressing her deep disappointment when Peyton sets him up for assaulting Claire and Michael’s daughter Emma, played by Madeline Zima. That last sequence draws on a very familiar trope from Southern literature – the white woman weaponising the rhetoric of assault by transferring blame from her husband (in this case, the doctor) to a black man – and it’s strange to see it in a story that takes place in the Pacific Northwest. Nevertheless, the evolution of this black archetype is so functional that he’s synonymous with the spatial scheme of the house, appearing as if by magic in the closing scene, in the highest window of the building, to rescue the whole family.
Within this spatial scheme, and this heightened suburban field, Peyton performs a kind of slo-mo, stealthy home invasion drama. Rather than traversing the thresholds of the house in a single night, she goes about settling into the serenity of the house even more than Claire, aiming to gradually displace her instead of violently ejecting her. In practice, this means that she takes over the house at night, starting in the baby’s bedroom, the epicentre of calm, where she sets up wind chimes so that she can calibrate the serenity as precisely as possible. Over the first few weeks, she sneaks upstairs to breast feed the baby, situating herself at the core of Claire’s domestic space, where she feeds off the baby as well, using it to absorb and store all the studied quietness of the house. In effect, she’s feeding on the intensified silence of night via the baby, channelling the whole marriage and family as she poses in Claire’s chair.
Over time, Peyton becomes more comfortable with claiming this nocturnal serenity as her own – and with bringing more members of the family into it. She starts with Emma, Claire and Michael’s daughter, who she brings down to her room in the middle of the night to elicit secrets about her parents as they watch television. Then she invites Michael, “accidentally” dropping the ice tray in the wee small hours of the morning to lure him down for a midnight snack. Michael is a more complex prospect than Emma, however, so Peyton has to precede this nocturnal meeting with a complementary strategy during the day – enlisting him and Marlene, Claire’s best friend, to prepare a surprise party for Claire’s upcoming birthday. This serves a number of purposes – it brings her closer to Marlene, it brings Michael closer to Marlene (which makes Claire suspicious, since the two once dated) and, most importantly, it turns Claire into a stranger in her own house, as often happens with surprise birthday parties.
Usually, this is a pleasant and delightful surprise, but by the time the party happens Claire is so wracked with paranoia that she accuses Michael of cheating on her with Marlene at the very moment that her guests are waiting for them both in the next room. This completes Claire’s dissonance and dissociation from her house and family, although she realises this spatially before she realises it psychologically, retreating upstairs to the baby’s room, where she sits in her regular chair, while the baby remains in its crib, inchoately aware that she has been displaced in some way. Without quite knowing why, she suggests to Michael that the family take a weekend away together and leave Peyton at home – a clear indication to Peyton, who is listening intently on the baby monitor, that she has reached the crisis-point in her plan.
Hanson expresses this crisis-point through the highest shot of the house yet, tinged with a dramatic blue filter, as the refrain of “Poor Wandering One” returns in a more ominous minor key. Yet this is also the moment, as Claire’s domestic thresholds are about to be breached, when the shared middle-class project should kick in – when her middle-class circle should register this breach in Claire’s thresholds as a violation of their own. Sure enough, Marlene now encounters Peyton at the periphery of her own domestic purview, arriving at the very end of a list of properties, and almost dismissing the last one, only to get a magnifying glass and notice something very strange on the periphery of that property – a series of wind chimes adorning every window. Realising that the property was owned by the doctor who assaulted Claire, and putting two and two together, she gets in her car and heads straight for the Bartels’ place, driving increasingly manically as Hanson provides us with a series of crazy POV shots from the windscreen as it hurtles up and down Seattle’s downtown streets, like a window that’s about to be broken – or like a window that’s about to collapse under its own pressure.
Meanwhile, Peyton has realised that to truly displace Claire (rather than simply dispose of her) she has to use her own spatial logic against her – she has to bring her thresholds in too close, and turn them into a form of suffocation. No surprise that she sets her sights on the greenhouse, which she rigs to turn into a self-destructive killing machine, although she has to improvise when Marlene turns up at her door. Accordingly, she tells Marlene that Claire is in the greenhouse, and when Marlene enters she’s impaled by an army of glass shards that fall down from the ceiling, since Peyton has done to the panes what already seemed possible with the windscreen – tightened and fixed them so they fall apart under their own pressure as the door opens. Peyton depends upon Claire having an asthma attack when she discovers Marlene’s body, removing all of the inhaler from her puffers so that she will perish as a result of what she witnesses in the greenhouse, and so die at the hands of the greenhouse after all.
While Claire survives, Peyton still takes control of the house during her stay in hospital. Although Michael rejects her sexual advances on the first night, he’s still seduced in a different way – by accepting her as a part of the serenity, stillness and ambience of the house in Claire’s absence. He might push her off when she comes onto him in the kitchen, but by the time Claire arrives home, Peyton is clearly synonymous with the house itself – all quiet management as she reminds Michael about his schedule. She’s even redecorated the baby’s room with her own preferred design. In that short hospital stay, Claire has been fully displaced from the serene nocturnal core of the house, reduced to skulking in the shadows on the staircase while her “family” plays card games in the brightly lit living room far, far below her.
In order to recover her domestic space, Claire has to travel to the outermost point of these thresholds – or explore the furthest they can go. Given that the core of her domestic space is the baby’s room, and her own womb, she has to measure that against Peyton’s own womb-room, although she only knows this instinctually and inchoately as she traces Marlene’s last steps, finally arriving at the photograph of the house where Peyton used to live. Unlike Marlene, however, she doesn’t notice the wind chimes, and instead opts to inspect the property, mirroring Marlene’s careening windscreen perspectives before she poses as an interested buyer. The only way for her to contend with Peyton isolating her in her own domestic space is to be alone in Peyton’s – and she finally realises this when she arrives at the bedroom in this other house, and sees the same wallpaper Peyton installed in her own. At this womb-to-womb threshold, the moment at which her own womb encounters another womb, and the outermost limits of her proprioceptive space, everything is suddenly revealed.
Things move quickly from here, as Claire rushes home, tells Michael what has happened, and the two of them kick Peyton out. Yet in one final flourish, the film becomes a literal home invasion drama, as Peyton lingers outside, and condenses her months of gradual home invasion into a single night of rampage. On the one hand, she deploys the tools she used to make this gradual invasion work, from a spade to a bedside clock. On the other hand, she draws on her weeks and months of getting to know the nocturnal silences of this house – her ability to make them speak to her, and to speak through them in turn. When she finally strikes, she’s thus able to weaponise the serenity of the house against itself – to turn silence directly into violence, as Hanson opts for the most fluid camera and expressionist lighting of the film.
In the end, the family survives, but Claire and Michael aren’t up to to the task on their own. They need two supplements, the first of which comes from Emma, their daughter. During these closing scenes, Claire’s womb is displaced onto Emma, who in turn displaces the baby and lures Peyton into a closet through a tactical use of the baby monitor. Then, Solomon turns up to save the day, arbitrarily appearing in the attic window, and setting up Claire to finally push Peyton backwards out that window and onto the grass, Michael Myers-style, as “Poor Wandering One” recurs once more, this time in a major refrain. Peyton might have breached the serene whiteness of the Bartels’ house, but the white couple aren’t enough to contest it – in the end, they require their daughter, and a black servant, to get the job done for them. And so The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, like so many melodramas of this time, concludes on the pinnacle of its suburban thresholds, at the point where they quiver at their most porous, by conceding that whiteness is simply not enough, as seductive and luxurious as it can appear.