Secretary

Before it takes a sudden turn and devolves into a bizarre sort of romantic comedy, Steven Shainberg's adaptation of Mary Gaitskill's harrowing short story about dominance, submission and the twisted sexual dynamics of the workplace is a brilliantly played, deeply unsettling experience. Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is fresh out of the sanitarium but still...read more

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Reviewed by Ken Fox
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Before it takes a sudden turn and devolves into a bizarre sort of romantic comedy, Steven Shainberg's adaptation of Mary Gaitskill's harrowing short story about dominance, submission and the twisted sexual dynamics of the workplace is a brilliantly played, deeply unsettling experience. Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is fresh out of the sanitarium but still unable to keep her obsessive compulsion to cut herself in check; it seems just about any encounter with her drunken, overbearing father (Stephen McHattie) has her reaching for the sharp little sewing scissors and the iodine. Egged on by her coddling and equally overbearing mother (Lesley Ann Warren), Lee takes a typing class at Florida's Clairmont Community College, then goes looking for a secretarial job. She finds one in the offices of E. Edmund Grey (James Spader), a damp and furtive lawyer whose "Help Wanted" sign hangs like a semi-permanent "Vacancy" shingle on a hot-sheets motel, and who cultivates rare orchids in his vaguely Oriental inner sanctum. He hires Lee on the spot, and the mind games begin as soon as he notices the tell tale pattern of tiny Band-Aids on the backs of her thighs. Mr. Grey sets out an assortment of bizarre and demeaning tasks for Lee to perform and asks her probing, inappropriate questions about her sex life after spotting her at a local laundromat with her high-school sweetheart (Jeremy Davies). And when Mr. Grey decides he can no longer tolerate the typos on Lee's documents, he bends her over his desk and administers a stern spanking that leaves Lee shocked, sore, humiliated and sexually aroused. So far, so good. Shainberg and co-writer Erin Cressida Wilson get to the dark heart of Gaitskill's story with startling directness, and his two stars are so in synch it's like watching two psyches surgically exposed with a scalpel. And then it's as if another director stepped into Shainberg's shoes for a game of cinematic exquisite corpse. No doubt anxious to empower this likeable heroine, the second half of the film transforms Grey's assault on Lee into a moment of sexual liberation; she's a very kinky girl, it turns out, and her emotionally remote boss has only given her what she needed all along. Mr. Grey's interest flags, Lee tries everything in the book to get him back, and this once seriously edgy film assumes the guise of a silly madcap comedy, spiced up by an air of naughty chic that's more John Willie than Mary Gaitskill.

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  • Released: 2002
  • Rating: R
  • Review: Before it takes a sudden turn and devolves into a bizarre sort of romantic comedy, Steven Shainberg's adaptation of Mary Gaitskill's harrowing short story about dominance, submission and the twisted sexual dynamics of the workplace is a brilliantly played,… (more)

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