What Lies Beneath (2000)

by Renee Scolaro Rathke


CAUTION: This review contains spoilers, although frankly, it doesn’t reveal much more information than the film’s trailer does.

“Take Me Away!”

cover art

What Lies Beneath

Director: Robert Zemeckis
Cast: Harrison Ford, Michelle Pfeiffer, Diana Scarwid, Amber Valletta


The most thought-provoking aspect of What Lies Beneath lies in its title. As a generic horror/mystery/suspense film, What Lies Beneath provides some good scares, but mostly tired plot devices and a host of Hitchcockian references that, frankly, border on fetishism (actually, fetishism is pretty Hitchcockian in its own right, but that’s another story). The title, however, is great. Do those three words form a question or a claim? Certainly the stark advertising poster with its blank white background featuring only a woman’s hand gripping the side of a white bathtub implies the former. Who is the woman? Is she dead or alive? Why has she slipped so far down into the tub that only her hand is visible? We know one thing for sure: this bathtub scene is no Calgon moment.

The film’s opening shot reinforces the question posed by the title, as the credits appear over dark, mist-covered water, which is eventually replaced by the superimposed image of a filled bathtub. We are in the Spencers’ Vermont lakeside home. Claire (Michelle Pfeiffer) and her husband Norman (an increasingly crumpled-looking Harrison Ford) are preparing to take Claire’s daughter Caitlin (Katherine Towne) off to college. It’s a new beginning for the Spencers, and not just the daughter: Claire and Norman are going to be alone for the first time, just the two of them. There are indications at this early point in the film that Claire might not be altogether stable, or, at the very least, that people around her consider her to be somewhat frail. At first it seems that Caitlin, Norman, and Claire’s best friend Jody (Diana Scarwid) are simply overprotective, worried about how she’ll handle her only child leaving home. Claire assures them that she’s fine. She says, as if it’s self-explanatory: “I have Norman, the garden, the house.” (Did I mention that this film takes place, like, now?).

Turns out that Norman and company have more than just empty-nest syndrome to worry bout when it comes to Claire: she had smashed her car into a tree a year before and nearly died. “It was an accident!” Claire whines, but nobody seems convinced. Worse, when she starts hearing noises and seeing things when she’s alone every night — while Norman slaves away at the university lab where he’s the DuPont Chair of Biogenetics — no one believes her. Instead, they ruffle her hair, kiss her on the forehead, and, finally, send her off to the local psychiatrist (whose cutting-edge techniques include having Claire suck on a fireball).

But this is a thriller, which means that Claire isn’t imagining the creepy, wan face she sees reflected in the bathwater, the steamy mirror, and the lake. Someone, or something, is trying to communicate with her, and it’s not long before you know it’s a ghost and that Claire may be less innocent than she appears at first. “You know!” the ghost writes in the steamy mirror, suggesting some complicity on her part. After several wrong turns and missed opportunities, she finally goes online (she’s a modern-day victim), where she finds a newspaper photo of the ghost, who turns out to be a girl named Madison (Amber Valletta), a student mysteriously missing from the college where Norman is employed. Then Claire recovers a memory from the year before, when she walked in on Norman and Madison having sex in her library (this led to her car wreck). When confronted, Norman admits to the affair, but insists he had nothing to do with Madison’s disappearance.

There are lots of lies in What Lies Beneath. The title asks not only what lies beneath the water, but also what lies beneath Claire’s perfect exterior? Or better, what lies beneath our assumption that she is perfect, being a good mother, wife, homemaker, neighbor, and friend, as well as beautiful and talented (she went to Julliard and still plays the cello, reportedly well enough to make listeners weep). But no one appreciates her perfection. The daughter is only onscreen long enough to say goodbye and never returns; the neighbors aren’t interested in Claire’s neighborliness; and Jody, though she obviously cares about Claire, nevertheless reinforces her frailty while bolstering her own self-image as (perfect?) friend and sounding board.

And then there’s Norman. The film’s poster stresses his perfection: “He was the perfect husband until his one mistake followed them home.” It’s a curious choice, really, since Norman isn’t on screen very much, and is decidedly inadequate whenever you do see him. He’s a self-obsessed workaholic, has serious Daddy issues, and is almost never home, effectively abandoning Claire. Add to that the fact that he used Claire’s convenient loss of memory as a get-out-of-jail-free card and I’d say old Norman is a far cry from perfect.

But featuring the “perfect husband” in the promotional materials works at a couple of levels. First of all, Harrison Ford carries more box office clout than Pfeiffer (undeservedly, I might add). Second, the film never really makes Norman seem perfect, so the viewer’s expectation from the promo is immediately undermined and builds suspense. Is there a third possibility, though? Are audiences more apt to be attracted to a story about a perfect husband who stumbled during a moment of weakness and is now at the mercy of some vengeful bitch? Certainly it’s a formula that has worked before (most obviously with Fatal Attraction). I suppose that the “he was a perfect husband” thing sells more tickets than the more accurate tagline: “She was the perfect wife until she started putting two and two together.”

With Norman’s admission of guilt and Jody’s confession that she knew about his affair, the title is less a question than a declaration of the layered falsehoods surrounding Claire and, by extension, everyone’s primary relationships: what lies beneath the surface guise of loyalty, concern, or even friendship? And once one recognizes the untruths, another version of the same question arises: what lies beneath those deceptions? Self-interest? Greed? Denial? Desire? The list of possibilities is endless and there isn’t one clear-cut answer. Certainly Norman’s desire to surpass his dead father’s reputation as a scientist (he has a theorem named after him) is a factor behind his lies. But what of Jody’s? What of Claire’s lies to herself? Is it self-preservation or is it her pride that refuses, until brutally confronted, to acknowledge that her life is not what it seems to be?

Actually, these are serious questions that What Lies Beneath asks us, concerning our constructions of ourselves and our lives, the fictions we put together for whatever reasons — to make our lives more palatable, to mask our selfishness or our anger. Though he’s obviously not a reliable source, Norman makes a pretty good observation concerning Claire when he calls her “a passive-aggressive masterpiece.” She is, and that’s worth noticing. While homicidal maniacs are actually pretty rare, films make big bucks cashing in on our fear of this social anomaly. The scarier reality, made all too well known of late, is the violence and rage that lies beneath the guise of, if not perfection, at least normalcy.

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