FILM MARATHON: Julia Roberts #2 – Sleeping with the Enemy [1991]

“The broken lights in the darkness would show the way”

Oh, the power of the moustache. That patch of hair can make even the most affable man appear the villain, but when you cue the horror music and light his face so it’s in chiaroscuro, the effect is amplified exponentially. No matter how idyllic director Joseph Ruben attempted to shoot the beginning of Sleeping with the Enemy, you can’t help but see through Martin Burney’s smile and calming tonal speech. Julia Roberts’ Laura might sway your belief in the existence of love between these two, yet something just isn’t right with Patrick Bergin’s Martin. He is so stiff, so accommodating, and unable to hide a cool stare demanding obedience. We catch a glimpse of his true self in a jump cut from requesting his white gown wearing wife to think about a black, backless dress for dinner to the couple sashaying through hoards of business clientele, she having changed of course. And it doesn’t take much longer for the abuse to rear its ugly head; it’s an uncontrollable anger that could have been effective if not for the extremely heavy-handed delivery on behalf of the writer, director, and actors throughout.

I can see how Ruben wanted to make this a thriller to stick with its audience, taking a page from films such as John Carpenter’s Halloween and utilizing the menacingly deliberate monster shots as well as the hauntingly jarring score at its back. But this isn’t a horror flick, and no matter how evil Martin may be—and let me tell you, Bergin nails the smarmy, two-faced chauvinist bastard to perfection—he is still a human being that resides in the realm of the un-supernatural. He is just another rich antagonist with the money and clout to get away with murder, or at least everything but, instilling a strong fear in his wife, keeping her close and in check, unable to leave without drastic repercussions. The police can’t do anything to stop him except for restraining orders or stern warnings, and those two will only make him unleash his wrath at a level even more vicious than before. No, the only way for Laura to escape is to run, but smartly and with a plan. It is in her fear of water and inability to swim that she may have a chance. Using the one thing her husband believes she is afraid of more than he, she can prepare herself for the one opportunity he is looking the other way, taking it and never looking back.

But this is a conniving creature with a drive to attain all he thinks is owed him. She is his wife and despite keeping his proclivity for violence a secret until after the honeymoon, he has never lied to her about his feelings or desire to be with her ‘til death do they part. So, after the first third sets up the reasons for Laura’s escape, the remainder of Sleeping with the Enemy portrays her seeming freedom from Martin—although mired by paranoia and boundary issues with men—cross cut to his discovery and ensuing search to reacquire that which he’s lost. And while the moments with Roberts’ and her new friend Ben (Kevin Anderson) are very sweet and believable in their innocence of compassionate love for one another, the short vignettes of Bergin’s journey is rife with 90s film clichés and hamfisted style. Those moments of beautiful lighting such as sailing in an evening rainstorm, illuminated by the boat’s lanterns, and on stage with Roberts surrounded by the drama department’s stars and snow, are unforgettable images of sharp contrast and a keen sense of visual aptitude. But just as those gorgeous instances are tough to forget, so are the ones of Bergin’s stern face floating out of the darkness as cringe-worthy theatrics subverting the realism trying so hard to win out.

As I said before, Bergin is a fantastic caricatured villain, earnestly making the audience unwilling to forget what it is he’s capable of doing. Unfortunately this isn’t quite the film to use a performance of such blatant evil without coming across as comical. I’ll admit this may be a product of its age, though, as for all I know, audiences ate this stuff up upon release, fearing for Laura’s life at every turn because the stakes were stacked so high against her. I can’t say the same seeing it almost two decades later—a cartoon villain only makes me self-aware that good will prevail in the end. An enemy such as Martin can only exist for a heroine to conquer. So, rather than enthrall me with suspense, the film instead drags on for long stretches, a pity too since the scenes of Laura’s rebirth as a new woman, Sarah, do succeed. When Roberts has that huge grin on her face, you do believe each and every emotion radiating forth. She and Anderson’s Ben are smitten and fun to watch, even when partaking in another turn of the century cinematic trope—the montage. I knew it was coming as soon as the music began to play with her on stage, but somehow seeing these two play dress-up worked for me, especially juxtaposed with the anguish of her previous life.

All that must end, however, since we are constantly aware of how close Martin is getting. The inevitable confrontation is moments away, stalled a couple times to annoying effect, and foreshadowed by Laura’s knowledge of Martin’s eccentric need for order amongst objects. What comes so naturally to Roberts as a performer—a jubilant spirit—is shown in but a few fleeting instants, her tear-streaked horror replacing it constantly. I’m not saying she doesn’t pull off the fear; her reactions are in fact quite believable. I guess I just couldn’t live with the prevalence of handfed danger, forcing me to think I’m scared and worried for those onscreen when in fact I could care less, pretty sure in my knowledge of the outcome. It’s too bad because Sleeping with the Enemy does end up being half a good film when obvious plants of classical music and towel positions unsurprisingly hold more weight than simple innocuous details as previously thought. No, everything that occurs does so for a specific reason, deliberately moving the pieces around on the board while telling us exactly where to look and what to think. A truly great thriller hits you because it doesn’t appear to be steering you around. I never felt like I was in control of my own reactions here, always being made aware of the artifice on display.

Sleeping with the Enemy 5/10 | ★ ★

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