Winner of the Audience Award at the 1994 Sundance Film Festival, SPANKING THE MONKEY is a unique, penetrating, and, ultimately, courageously honest film. Unlike so many other recent youth-oriented independent efforts, it takes on difficult, even impossible, issues with genuinely
After his first year at MIT, Ray (Jeremy Davies) heads home for a few days before starting a prestigious summer internship in Washington. He's crushed to learn from his father, Tom (Benjamin Hendrickson), a traveling instructional video salesman on his way out of town, that he is expected to
stay home through the summer and take care of his mother, who is suffering from a severe depression after breaking her leg in a fall. Tom seems more concerned about the care of his dog and car than with his wife's illness or his son's career in medicine. Ray's mom, Susan (Alberta Watson), is still
bedridden, requiring Ray to carry her to the bathroom and hold her steady while she showers. Ray is uneasy with her demands, not least because his mother is a good-looking woman with an easy, sensual nature.
Ray is sexually frustrated, unable to find release even in the privacy of the bathroom. His mother taunts him about sex, snidely deriding his last girlfriend then admonishing him on safe sex. When Ray meets Toni Peck (Carla Gallo), an ambitious high school junior, he finds her attractive but
remains haltingly insecure about himself. Meanwhile, Ray's efforts to extricate himself from his obligation to Susan start to pay off, but he finds himself powerfully drawn to his mother's body while tending to it in very intimate ways. On his last night home before heading to DC, he makes out
with Toni. When she complains that he seems too tentative, he overreacts, grabbing her too roughly. She flees, telling her father, a psychiatrist, that Ray assaulted her. After Susan confronts Ray with the accusation, she patiently listens to his story, then gives him guidelines on gentleness.
They sit up watching TV and drinking, and slowly, inevitably, become physically entangled when Susan invites him to pursue his impulses.
In the aftermath, Ray is tortured with shame and despair, unable to pull away but horrified by the reality of what has happened. Susan slips into strained denial. Tom comes home briefly, announcing that he can't afford to send Ray back to MIT in the fall and suggesting that he spend a year
selling videos to earn his tuition while living at home. The prospect is intolerable to Ray, who tries to make a confession to his father, only to have Susan successfully deflect it. Ray runs into Toni, and they achieve a reconciliation when Toni sees the depth of Ray's fear and pain; they spend
the night talking (but not about the events of the previous night). When Susan finds Toni and Ray half-naked in his bedroom, she explodes, accidentally striking Toni. Dr. Peck (Richard Husson) comes for an explanation; Susan blames her medication for causing mood swings.
Ray can't accept Susan's blithe efforts to sustain the illusion of normalcy, and attempts to hang himself with a belt; when Susan interrupts him, he furiously kisses and then strangles her. Rescued by the sudden appearance of his friend Nicky (Matthew Puckett), Ray leaves his shocked, wounded
mom and heads out to the quarry where the guys hang out to smoke dope. He throws himself off a steep cliff into the pond, and is believed drowned by his stunned companions. He isn't. He makes his way out of the woods to the highway, where he hitches a ride at dawn.
Incest has been employed as a dramatic device since Sophocles' Oedipus cycle, but few films have approached it with the frankness and humanity found here. Neophyte auteur David O. Russell creates a precisely defined context, delicately weaving the details of everyday life into the extraordinary
circumstances of the story. He takes pains to dramatize the chains of resentment and denial that both bind and destroy the family. The candid depiction of Ray's sexual universe (masturbation, sexual fantasies, fumbling first kiss) is compelling, heartbreaking, and hilarious (particularly the dog
in the bathroom). His anxiety and later panic are intensely involving, all the more so because the leads are intelligent, thoughtful people who never lose sight of the absurdity, as well as the tragedy, of their situation.
The only weakness in the film is the character of Tom, who is perhaps too conveniently self-involved and cloddish, but Hendrickson is able to give him more depth than the script provides. Davies and Gallo are superb, bringing a complex mixture of wisdom and naivete to their roles. But the center
of the film is Watson, whose performance is easily one of the richest and most densely textured of the year. She creates a powerful image of a lonely, frustrated, bitter woman, who alternates between living vicariously through her son and wanting to punish him for his freedom. Without her
convincing characterization, wavering between parental authority and a desperate need for affection, the film would not succeed nearly as well as it does.
SPANKING THE MONKEY is the kind of movie that independent filmmaking is supposed to be all about. It's an extremely auspicious debut for Russell, who nimbly undercuts the melodrama with a dry, biting humor, never allowing the story to slide into sensationalism, camp, or cheap pathos. (Partialnudity, sexual situations, profanity, violence, adult situations.)
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- Released: 1994
- Rating: NR
- Review: Winner of the Audience Award at the 1994 Sundance Film Festival, SPANKING THE MONKEY is a unique, penetrating, and, ultimately, courageously honest film. Unlike so many other recent youth-oriented independent efforts, it takes on difficult, even impossible… (more)