The Hand That Rocks the Cradle

(Curtis Hanson, USA, 1992)


The Hand That Rocks the Cradle is a contemporary thriller framed by a reassuring little parable.

At the start, yuppie housewife Claire (Annabella Sciorra) is scared by the sudden appearance at her kitchen window of a hooded, black intruder. Taken in hand by Michael (Matt McCoy), the Sensitive New Age Guy of the house, the intruder turns out be Solomon (Ernie Hudson), a mentally disabled person sent by the "Better Day" association to do helpful carpentry chores for the family.

Solomon figures as the innocent, non-threatening outsider of the story; Claire and Michael eventually learn to overcome their vestigial doubts and prejudices and, in the film’s final moments, welcome him in as a nurturing and nurtured member of their happy family.

The film’s other, more central intruder is the mirror opposite of Solomon in virtually every conceivable way. Peyton (Rebecca De Mornay) is white, female, a cultured bourgeois like Claire and Michael. Whereas Solomon’s physical contact with the children of the household is cautiously restricted, Peyton is entrusted with unlimited access: she is to be their live-in "nanny" for the months that Claire builds an elaborate backyard greenhouse.

Where the parents are quick to suspect Solomon of grave misconduct, they realise almost too late that the real villain of the piece is in fact Peyton, seeking revenge for both the husband and child she lost as a result of legal action encouraged by Claire. The Hand That Rocks the Cradle proposes, in short, a social and moral lesson in how to distinguish truly threatening outsiders from only seemingly threatening ones: a lesson in refining one’s paranoid sense.

1992 saw the release of a cycle of thrillers – Cape Fear, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, Poison Ivy, Unlawful Entry, Raising Cain and Single White Female – closely feeding off each other’s plots, characters and themes. Cycles are invariably viewed by reviewers and critics as a cynical, opportunistic exercise in market exploitation – a quick rash of films trying to cash in on the fleeting popular taste for a particular trend. Yet, with this cycle extending itself into 1993 with Consenting Adults, Guilty as Sin, The Temp, The Crush and Whispers in the Dark, the key question still remains: why do these films work? What nerve do they hit? For no amount of publicity hype or commercial calculation can keep an audience coming to the cinema if the films are not, in some way, touching on a thrill that is both tantalising and disturbing enough to create a pleasurable frisson.

In contrast to the often comic book-like polarities of good and evil, normality and monstrousness, that permeate horror films, the thriller is the genre par excellence of ambiguity and ambivalence. Insofar as the typical thriller plot sets in play a crisis of the already-known "self" (either family home or individual body) in relation to its encroaching, not-yet-known "other", its primal questions are always halting, uncertain ones: who are you, really? Do I want you to go away or come closer? What do you mean to me? Hence the rampant, often unsettling sexual ambiguity of these films, oscillating between common-sense revulsion at the imminent prospect of rape and the tantalising allure of taking a walk on the wild side with a real, uncontrollable animal. Hence, also, the sorts of spatial confusions evoked in the dialogue of The Hand That Rocks the Cradle: "Do you want the fence to keep people in, or to keep people out?"

If thrillers run on paranoia, it is often, paradoxically, a highly sophisticated, self-critical form of paranoid thinking. Herein lies the real intelligence of many contemporary thrillers. The terms of normality and the monster, self and other, are set into a constant spin, and often reverse their positions. The yuppie homes in Unlawful Entry and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle are presented coldly and clinically, often framed as empty, soulless shells. The principal marital and family relationships in all the films of the cycle are internally troubled, riddled with malaise. The outsider appears in such contexts, with inexorable logic, as a devilish Prince Charming, an answer to each individual’s suppressed needs and desires – a logic taken to its extreme in Martin Scorsese’s remake of Cape Fear.

It is not only the normal folk who are beset by queasy ambivalences. In Poison Ivy, Unlawful Entry and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, the anti-hero suffers from an especially troubling equivocation: is his or her deepest yearning to destroy the Norman Rockwell-like happy family unit, or to become part of it? One of the central sources of unease and enigma in the thriller genre comes from the way in which the film makes it hard for us to adjudicate an exact answer to that question.

We should rarely expect popular films to be exactly coherent once they take on heated areas of social debate. The Hand that Rocks the Cradle is a prime example of a film with inadvertently mixed messages and a curious array of diverse political agendas. Here, as in Cape Fear, the monster is seeking revenge for punishment meted out in the name of liberal, feminist-inflected justice. In the Scorsese film, it is a question of a defence attorney who ensured that his own client was convicted for a brutal rape; in Cradle, a woman seeks revenge for the sexual harassment suit that wrecked her husband’s career and drove him to suicide. Cradle (scripted by Amanda Silver) is clearly more sympathetic to the actions of its liberal, law-abiding, home-protecting characters than Cape Fear, with its unambiguous misogyny and gleeful delight in De Niro exacting the savage justice which is his due; neither the harassment incident itself, nor the consequent legal steps taken, are ever in question factually or morally.

And yet … after this elaborate prologue, the film plays on the kind of nightmare which depends unmistakeably on a familiar demonising of women. The title (one presumes) is a vague memory of Dorothy Dinnerstein’s argument in the well-known ’70s book The Mermaid and the Minotaur: that the mothering of children, when it is obsessive and exclusive, breeds a collective condition that is monstrous and pathological. In the film, the proverb on which Dinnerstein based her meditation, "the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world", is helpfully translated by one character as "never let an attractive woman get a power position in your home". And De Mornay, with the family’s baby illicitly at her breast, is indeed a monstrous amalgam: unnatural mother, unnaturally good looking, unnaturally successful in her babysitting "career".

For its finale, the film rescrambles its elements once again, this time into a less troublesome, more familiar ideological diagram – pitting (Aliens-style) the bad, unnatural mother against the good, natural one (helped out by safe Solomon). Suddenly, savage justice is the crusade of the yuppie driven over the edge into violent personal empowerment: a denouement shared by Unlawful Entry and Single White Female. This is a typical feature of the cycle, this scene of one-to-one showdown between the representatives of normality and the monster – a scene that is itself notably lawless, and often set in the barren ruins of the family home.

Cinema is ambiguous because, even in its most transparent and simple-minded instances, it is so descriptively rich. Camille Paglia argues for the place of movies over television in tertiary education on the grounds that “the inflections of emotion on people’s faces, interrelations of subtleties, of non verbal subtleties of interpersonal sexual relations, are shown by cinema”. And of all the movie genres, the thriller is perhaps the one which most capitalises on this density and ambiguity inherent in cinematic representation. This is what makes it ideal as a cultural form through which to channel and explore prevalent social confusions over sudden, hot topics. Tellingly, Paglia’s assessment of the educational worth of cinema slides immediately into a topical provocation worthy of the best contemporary thrillers. “Date-rape feminists want to insist, ‘No always means no’. You’d never believe that if you were seeing cinema”.

MORE Hanson: In Her Shoes, 8 Mile

© Adrian Martin December 1993

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
home    reviews    essays    search