Synopsis: A woman fakes her death to escape her nightmarish marriage but discovers it is impossible to elude her controlling husband.
Stars: Julia Roberts, Patrick Bergin, Kevin Anderson, Elizabeth Lawrence, Kyle Secor, Claudette Nevins, Tony Abatemarco, Marita Geraghty, Nancy Fish
Director: Joseph Ruben
Running Length: 99 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: We all have films stored in our back pockets as “old reliables,” surefire winners that will do the trick in a pinch. We know their narrative beats, and the familiarity of each line of dialogue gives them a comfort food quality, putting them in an irresistible category entirely easy to return to. I have a handful of these I rotate through, and while most are comedies and sci-fi adventures I grew up with, I love a glossy ‘90s thriller that knows what kind of slick entertainment it provides. They no longer make suspense yarns like Sleeping with the Enemy, and it’s a crying shame. When you watch it now, you can see how effective the Hollywood machine was in building something that lasts.
Julia Roberts already had an Oscar nomination for Steel Magnolias when she filmed Sleeping with the Enemy in 1990, shortly after Pretty Woman opened in March. By the time the movie opened in February 1991, Roberts had another Oscar nomination for playing a hooker with a heart of gold and a modest box-office hit in Flatliners. This helped make her a hot commodity when she signed on to what critics saw as derivative stalker material that forgot its origins as a nail-biting domestic thriller.
Respectfully, I disagree.
The set-up is so simple: An abused wife married to a monster bravely stages her demise to start a new life away from him. He finds her after she has established herself and lets her guard down. Screenwriter Ronald Bass (The Joy Luck Club) adapts Nancy Price’s 1987 novel with sophistication, diverging only slightly in the latter half of the film from Price’s original storyline. With that adaptation in hand, director Joseph Ruben (The Stepfather) got an early performance of Roberts (in a role initially intended for Kim Basinger) that showed vulnerability and allowed her to establish a confident character arc throughout.
I wonder if Basinger’s early attachment was why co-star Patrick Bergin (Patriot Games) was cast as the abusive spouse. One of the best screen hubby baddies, he collaborates with Roberts just fine, don’t get me wrong, and the age gap between the two opens another marital misalignment that is intriguing to explore. Still, there’s a curious lack of deep screen chemistry between the two leads that can work against the film in critical moments. At least Roberts and Kevin Anderson (Risky Business), as a high school drama teacher she gets flirty with after her character moves to a small town in Iowa, hit it off nicely with sparks flying.
Ruben works with cinematographer John Lindley (I Love Trouble) to create distinct visual looks between the confined life the wife leads and the freedom she finds after fleeing. The nighttime escape at sea during a rainstorm is also impressively staged, especially when you have to sit through it a second time when Ruben shows us, Gone Girl style, how the wife pulled it all off. In the thrills department, a nail-gnawing finale that’s quite different in tone may seem to come out of nowhere. However, the jarring nature feels appropriate, considering it represents two worlds colliding unexpectedly. Then there is The Moment that happens, a line Roberts utters I’ll never forget because the sold-out audience I saw it with on opening weekend with my dad let out the loudest cheer and applause.
Made for 19 million dollars and grossing a staggering 175, Sleeping with the Enemy firmly established Roberts as bankable and wrote her name on the A list in pen. It’s a movie I love returning to over and over again for its confidence as a star vehicle and the way it embraces its thriller roots. 20th Century Fox hiring an efficient director such as Ruben (who knew his way around suspense) was a big part of making sure the finished film owned its genre placement and didn’t apologize for it along the way. Roberts is also willing to play the game, and I’m unsure if she would have agreed to do it even a year later. So, enjoy a film made at the perfect time with the right people; it’s a B-movie premise given an A- polish delivered by a A team of filmmakers with an A+ talent leading the way.