Nineteen years ago this week director Robert Zemeckis created supernatural thriller What Lies Beneath. The movie’s one year shy of a bigger milestone. But worth revisiting as it doesn’t its due credit. Mostly dismissed after its 2000 release, it’s actually worthy of praise. Including Harrison Ford in an atypical role that feels vastly overlooked. It also has a feminist message that lays just neatly beneath the surface, just like the title implies.
Disclaimer – this entire review has spoilers of a nineteen year old supernatural thriller.
What Lies Beneath feels like it unravels as one long clue. It’s filled with details to keep continually uncovering which is fun for mystery lovers. Watching it again for its nineteenth birthday, I found new things to appreciate.
Solidifying I was right to defend this fun, sexy, supernatural thriller.
For one, Harrison Ford is a truly underrated villain. A trademark smile, associated with charismatic men like Indy Jones, and Jack Trainer is channeling something different here. Norman Spencer is a nuanced character. One who embodies success and all it entails. Entitlement, vanity, the perfect wife, and house.
He’s a scientist and professor, married to the beautiful Claire. Yet still in the shadow of his award winning dead father. Now with his step daughter away at college, the two are renovating his dad’s picturesque home.
Various mysterious events then begins occurring in and around the house. They lead Claire to wonder if a there is a real spirit haunting her at home.
The supernatural suspense packs in Hitchcock references (including a Rear Window inspired red herring) and lots of foreshadowed moments. Some are more subtle. At one point during an early conversation, Claire and Norman discuss his late father. It seems inconsequential. But there’s a restraint in Norman which in retrospect, indicates he’s holding back some strong emotions.
Some clues are more obvious.
Like a pesky picture frame, phone service on a bridge or a background conversation in Norman’s lab. Others are visibly scattered throughout the movie. Including the name of a jewelry store which plays a prominent part. Some I only noticed on recent viewings. All details that appear minute but are meaningful.
At one point, we see Norman take a white handkerchief from his pocket and put it on the dresser. Seemingly unimportant, yet watching it again I realize it isn’t. It’s another well set clue which speaks directly to the story itself.
In another scene, the couple dines with their friend and his girlfriend. Claire realizes she knows her from the old days, and the film focuses on them. But in the background, the men chat. The friend mentions their mutual pal was fired after getting caught with his student. Norman’s response, a nonchalant equivalent to that’s a shame. A bit of sharply placed dialogue easy to miss. One that further portrays him as a straight laced, if not rigid, work obsessed, loving husband.
The film should also get more credit for it’s bit of female empowerment subtext. The first half spends time trying to convince us the bad guy or haunting spirit is a jilted lover. A theme we’ve seen before in thrillers like Fatal Attraction. Movies that depict a single, sexual woman as a deviant, or killer.
But What Lies Beneath steers away from those stereotypes. Instead, it shows us the other woman isn’t always the true villain. Rather than pit wife and mistress against each other, like some films are prone to do, this one actually unites them. The ghostly element may be a bit hard to swallow. But it works on a deeper level to bond the woman and push forward their strange, intense connection.
The final shot illustrates that despite their opposition, something still connects them as humans. This isn’t a story about a woman forgiving her husband, or good triumphing over evil. In the end Claire was more concerned with Madison’s justice than herself or her marriage. It’s ultimately about the way we treat each other as women. The things we can do to one other, and the lengths we’ll also go to protect each other.
Are you a fan of this supernatural thriller?
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