#18 in my ranking of Robert Zemeckis films.
Famously made in the year long production break on Cast Away designed to give Tom Hanks enough time to slim down for the second half of that film, What Lies Beneath is a trifle in Robert Zemeckis’ filmography. It’s an homage to Hitchcock that ends up feeling surprisingly generic as it continues, but the whole thing is buoyed by Zemeckis’ sheer talent as he imbues every big scene with enough style and suspense that it’s almost enough to make up for the movie’s generic nature. Almost.
Claire is a housewife to an academic geneticist and they send their daughter off to college leaving an empty nest. With little to do but putz around the newly renovated house that Norman inherited from his father and spy on the new neighbors, it’s obvious that Claire is going to go a bit stir crazy. She starts seeing things, the most present of which deals with those new neighbors. They haven’t met, but the wife frantically begs Claire for help through the fence before she disappears. Convinced of murder, Claire shares her theory with Norman who dismisses her completely. It becomes a short Rear Window homage as Claire watches the husband through binoculars, convinced of his guilt.
At the same time, she sees things that are even less tangible, like a dead girl in her bathroom. In the mirror, in the water of the tub that fills mysteriously, amidst the steam of the hot water, the blond girl that resembles Claire a fair amount just keeps popping up. That’s crazy, right? She’s convinced that it’s the wife next door, so convinced that when she sees the husband coming out of a public venue one night, she barges up to him and demands to know how he killed his wife before he pulls his living wife into the conversation. Embarrassed, Norman leads Claire away.
And yet, the ghost is still there, so, given a clue from the ghost herself, her initials, Claire finds a matching name on Vermont’s list of missing persons and visits the girl’s mother. Madison was a student, a partier, and a good girl, but she just disappeared one day. It turns out that Madison and Norman had a connection, and the trailers gave it away completely. So, I’m not going to worry about giving it away here.
Norman had an affair with Madison and may have had something to do with her disappearance. Up to this point, the movie is a fine little supernatural thriller. It’s well built with very good moments of tension, but the movie strings us along on a lie that I’m not sure any in the audience believes, that Norman didn’t kill Madison. The second he backtracks on something he had said before, it’s obvious that he did it. You don’t write characters who lie and then lie about a lie to have them stop one step shy of being a killer in a movie about a dead girl. No, he’s the killer. He’s going to lie about it, and the movie tries to make the most of the idea that he didn’t kill her after we’ve figured it out for about a half hour. It’s a frustrating section of the film, and it really drags it down, killing a lot of the tension that should be there.
When the movie finally moves past that lie and lets us know that what we’ve known for half an hour is actually true, that Norman is a liar, then the movie picks back up again. Oh, that’s not to say that there isn’t good stuff in that half hour. When Claire uses a book given to her by a friend and a lock of hair she stole from Madison’s house to allow Madison’s ghost to possess her, it’s a titillating moment for sure, but the underlying tension isn’t there. But the movie feels a bit deflated until Norman reveals himself to Claire, and it’s a solid twenty minutes of building tension that works incredibly well because of the intelligent approach Zemeckis brings.
The height of it really is when Claire is catatonic in the bathtub as the water slowly rises up to her mouth, eventually over her nose, and she needs to use her limited physical movement as her body slowly wakes up to try and save herself with the plug in the drain. It’s done without music, just the sound of the water rising, and it’s the kind of sequence that Hitchcock did in his sleep. The rest of the movie’s climax is a series of really inventive visual effects shots, the sorts of things you wouldn’t expect from a movie like this but would from Robert Zemeckis, and it all culminates in a solid denouement. It’s not great, but the ending does end up working pretty well.
I just mostly wish that the central mystery was actually, you know, a mystery. That half hour where we know what’s going to happen but the movie thinks we don’t feel like such a drag on everything else around it, and everything else around it is solidly fine, not great. As I said in the beginning, it’s kind of a generic Hitchcock throwback film. It makes sense as a smaller project that Zemeckis could throw together in the hole in his schedule that was the middle of Cast Away‘s production, but it makes less sense as a project that held a lot that attracted Zemeckis to the project. The Hitchcock homage angle makes sense as well, but there’s a problem in the script that feels like might have gotten addressed if Zemeckis had had more time to work on it.
Still, it’s not really a bad film at all. It’s opening hour and final twenty minutes work quite well, but there’s that section that just drags it all down too much. I also feel like the empty nest stuff in the beginning just gets largely forgotten by the end, leaving a healthy thematic avenue unexplored. Oh well. It could have been worse.