May 2021

Sleeping With The Enemy (1991)

Sleeping with the Enemy - Is Sleeping with the Enemy on Netflix - FlixList

DIRECTOR: Joseph Ruben

CAST: Julia Roberts, Patrick Bergin, Kevin Anderson


Sleeping With The Enemy briefly flirts with a semi-serious, down-to-earth study of domestic abuse, and then disappointingly quickly abandons any pretensions of anything loftier than a generic thriller where the heroine can run, but she can’t hide. What follows might have still been a moderately engaging diversion, but an already bad aftertaste of disappointment from its more promising opening is further undone by manufactured plot contrivances and a narrative that only gets more rote and by-the-numbers as it slips into its generic slasher movie finale.

We open with the outwardly happy marriage of successful financial counselor Martin Burney (Patrick Bergin) and his wife Laura (Julia Roberts), who get away from Boston at their expansive summer vacation home on the beach in Cape Cod. The opening (accentuated by Jerry Goldsmith’s deceptively tranquil score) tries to momentarily lull us into thinking everything is a little too picture-perfect, but the name of the movie is Sleeping With The Enemy, so it’s not a huge shock when it soon becomes clear that Martin is a domineering obsessive-compulsive control freak who treats his wife like trophy, maid, and cook, holds her to exacting standards (their towels and canned goods must be more neatly arranged than the most immaculate retail store), and occasionally lashes out in a violent outburst at the smallest perceived transgression. After living under her husband’s reign of terror for years, Laura has finally set an exit strategy in motion, and one night when a neighbor’s boating invitation provides an opportune moment, she “drowns” (her body never recovered, of course), and flees to start a new life somewhere far, far away. That somewhere turns out to be Cedar Falls, Iowa, where Laura changes her identity, finds a house and a job, and even strikes up a tentative budding romance with a friendly drama teacher (Kevin Anderson). But of course, she hasn’t made as clean a getaway as she thinks, and it’s only a matter of time before her husband stumbles across various clues that make him suspicious, and eventually sets out to track her down.

The early scenes of Sleeping With The Enemy set up expectations of a movie more subtle and down-to-earth than the majority of what follows. The outwardly idyllic beachside house and marriage is tinged with a faintly uneasy undertone—the way Laura smiles to her husband’s face but looks tense and uneasy when he’s not looking—and Martin’s true nature is revealed a piece at a time. At first, his domineering nature is low-key and passive-aggressive—Laura meekly submitting to his own preference for which dress she wears to a party, his “reminder” when the bathroom towels aren’t perfectly arranged—but this accentuates the unease about what’s going to happen next, making the impact more abrupt and jarring when he strikes her for the first time. Later, there’s also some nice low-key scenes in Iowa involving the gradual steps by which she begins to trust her new prospective love interest, but the longer the movie goes on, the further it unravels under the weight of plot contrivances piling on top of each other. Martin discovering his wife’s deception is necessary to the plot, but it comes via several developments so ham-handed she might as well have mailed him a change-of-address card. SPOILER WARNING A wedding ring still in a toilet weeks later (has no one been flushing the toilet)? How did the woman in Laura’s YWCA get Martin’s work phone number? Does anal control freak Martin allow his wife such financial independence that he didn’t notice her continuing to secretly pay her “dead” mother’s (Elizabeth Lawrence) nursing home bills for another six months after her “death”? If Martin only discovers where Laura lives by following her there, then how has he already had time to fastidiously arrange the towels and canned goods when she comes home, and why would he bother? Because the increasingly ham-handed script, by Ronald Bass and Bruce Joel Rubin, is less interested in logic or Martin’s obsessive-compulsive disorder than using it as a plot device for a hackneyed jump scare. And as if the movie is continuously devolving the longer it runs, the finale is as rote and generic “slasher movie” formula as it comes, right down to the “villain who’s not really dead the first time”, just for one final cheap jolt.

Sleeping with the Enemy - Is Sleeping with the Enemy on Netflix - FlixList

The cast does the best they can with the material. Julia Roberts is convincing as the seemingly timid abused wife who finds the wit and will to make her escape, and Irish actor Patrick Bergin is suitably ominous (though his American accent sounds a little weird). These two are convincing enough establishing their dynamic in the opening scenes that it makes it disappointing later when Martin is reduced from a person to a one-note Michael Myers stand-in. The only other cast member of any significance is virtual unknown Kevin Anderson, who doesn’t make much of an impression as Laura’s bland budding love interest.

Maybe it’s a little silly to criticize a movie like Sleeping With The Enemy for not being deeper than it is, but the movie itself sets up expectations of such in its opening scenes, making it disappointing how soon it abandons them to sink ever further into lazy and rote cliches and plot contrivances. A brief flirtation with loftier aspirations doesn’t save this movie from the generic exploitation formula it surrenders to.

* * 1/2