Like trip-hop group Massive Attack, David O. Russell started off quiet and slowly became loud as all get-out. With all the craziness and banter that came out over Russell’s philosophical slapstick masterpiece I Heart Huckabees, it’s hard to believe that his foray began with this very quiet, very shocking film. Even the settings seem to have slowly become more and more convoluted: Spanking the Monkey was filmed in a quiet, almost-Podunk town in upstate New York, I Heart Huckabees is set in the sprawling, bombastic landscape of Los Angeles. However many differences I can name, there’s no denying that both films are Russell’s; they both exude a peculiarity and hypnotic style that piss plenty of people off.
Raymond (Jeremy Davies) is prepping himself for a very rewarding medical internship when his father, Tom (Benjamin Hendrickson), insists that he return home to take care of his sick mother (Alberta Watson) who has broken her leg. As all college students are, Ray becomes randy and hormonal with mounting professional frustration, the constant physical contact with his mother and the inclusion of Toni (Carla Gallo), a high school student that he tries to deflower. The rest of the movie is, essentially, leading up to the big climax of Ray getting frisky with his mom in an incestuous, liquor-driven free-for-all. It’s easily one of the more interesting films about oedipal relations, but there are problems.
The fact that liquor is a major component in Ray having sex with his mom takes away some of the power of the act; wouldn’t it be more satisfying to watch Davies and Watson deal with the actual attraction and emotions without giving it an easy out? Also, the film slacks a bit in the midsection, spending a little too much time dealing with Toni and her father, whom she admits Jeremy’s advances to. Toni, in general, is a problem because we don’t see her as anything besides another hormonal tease for Ray that leads to the incident. The film works a little too well with just Ray and his mom (it would have made a fantastic play) for it to be looked at in full scope.
This, by no means, makes it a bad film, however, since Davies seems to embody this specific type of disillusioned youth perfectly, and he handles the role admirably. Even better is Watson, who plays Susan, the mom, with just the slightest hint of seduction. It’s so slight that it might not even come up palpable, but with her criticisms and slow drawls toward Ray, she ensnares him; it’s an astonishing performance. Cinematographer Michael Mayers gives the surrounding fields a solemn mirror to the characters that inhabit it, and he lights Susan’s house like a medieval dungeon.
Like many first time directors, Russell both wrote and directed Spanking the Monkey and the talent is palpable on the screen. Most surprising, the act of incest, though shocking, doesn’t have the feeling of being for shock value. It seems like the logical conclusion in both Susan and Ray’s characters when we see it, unlike many other films (mostly B-horror and college comedies). It’s a small, formidable film that seems to pride itself on looking at the oedipal complex in new, fresh ways. I just wouldn’t watch this with family, just to be on the safe side.