SPANKING THE MONKEY *** Written & directed by David O. Russell. Photography, Michael Mayers. Editing, Pamela Martin. Production design, Susan Block. Cast: Jeremy Davies, Carla Gallo, Benjamin Hendrickson, Matthew Puckett, Alberta Watson. A Fine Line release, 98 min. Not rated.
Long ago, in polite print and speech, women had limbs rather than legs. Not so long ago, open references to incest (including the word itself, I believe) were taboo in the movies.
Cautious Hollywood did allude to incest in some works, and implied it more clearly in some Oedipal films like "Mourning Becomes Electra" (1947). Much later, in Roman Polanski's 1974 thriller "Chinatown," father-daughter incest was a big dark secret, among others.
Even in foreign films incest was scarce. In Luchino Visconti's "The Damned" (1969), the rape of a mother by her son was one of the symptoms of general decadence within a family. The little-known 1969 British satire "Country Dance" ("Brotherly Love" in the U.S.A.) dealt with upper-class Peter O'Toole's incestuous love for his sister.
Then came a major movie from France, Louis Malle's funny/ rambunctious/delicate "Murmur of the Heart" (1971) which not only created no scandal but was Oscar-nominated for Best Original Screenplay. Another big-name director, Bernardo Bertolucci, followed with his ornate, operatic "Luna" (1979). The interesting British "Close My Eyes" (1991), hardly seen in the U.S.A., dealt with a brother and sister relationship. Now comes "Spanking the Monkey," (slang for masturbation) a first (and low-budget) feature by David O.Russell.
Ray (Davies), returns home from his freshman year at M.I.T. intending to go to Washington for a summer medical internship, but his uncouth father Tom (Hendrickson) tells him that it's out of the question. Salesman Tom is leaving for a summer-long business trip, so the young man must stay there to take care of his mother who is confined to her bed with a leg in a cast.
Irritated and frustrated, Ray becomes a factotum, does household chores, brushes the teeth of his father's dog (and only friend), studies and takes care of Susan. Mothercare includes washing her back in the shower (his eyes averted) and massaging her toes, which, leading upwards to feet, calves and thighs, gradually inflames the boy.
"Your father never did this" says the handsome Susan, ill-married to that absolute stinker Tom who, every time he calls from the road is shown with naked women in his motel rooms.
Susan, who never realized her dreams and is currently full of medicines, is bored and miserable. At the same time as mother and son bicker and argue, she craftily promotes physical contacts. Ray can't help the sap from rising. Eventually the evitable-inevitable happens, not shown however as the movie fades to black at the critical moment.
The building up to the act takes up almost the whole first hour of movie time, during which tension mounts, Ray has a small night outing with former local classmates who taunt him, and starts a tentative affair with a sexually confused high-school senior. All this doesn't help. And all this is presented in slow, un-flashy fashion.
The operative word for this long section is "flat," from the characters -- not particularly interesting personalities -- to the banal dialogue and low-key events, to flat photography and lighting. This may test your patience somewhat, yet it seems to be there for the purpose of stressing the ordinariness of everything, so that when incest does take place, although expected it comes like a blow.
The second, shorter part of the film, starting with the morning after, picks up a big amount of sad, dramatic power -- realistic and without false dramatics -- and leads to a tragic situation but not to a real closure.
Strangely, the film's information speaks of "tragicomic events" and of "Ray creeping into a [...] radically funny abyss." I cannot see anything comic or funny in this movie, not even certain moments that might have been funny in a different context. My guess is that the publicists put all this in for fear that the subject might alienate conservative audiences. But when some reviewers did pick this up, I was puzzled.
With his straightforward and economic approach, director Russell makes of "Spanking the Monkey" more than a promise. This is an intriguing, well thought out and cleverly plotted work. It is daring both in subject matter and in adopting the opposite strategy of the current in-your-face movie trends. The cast of unknown players is excellent.
The movie won the Audience Award for best dramatic work at the 1994 Sundance Film Festival, where the Audience Documentary prize went to "Hoop Dreams," co-produced by Fred Marx. from C/U and the U of I.