The prompt was “A Movie You Would Never Watch with Family,” and I think I nailed it.
Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is a young woman who has been in treatment for self-harm. Her family is revealed to be pretty deeply dysfunctional, stemming from her father’s (Stephen McHattie) alcoholism, which disrupts Lee’s sister’s (Amy Locane) wedding. She takes a course in typing and applies for a job as a secretary for attorney E. Edward Grey (James Spader). Grey informs her that it’s boring work and that she is probably overqualified, but she accepts. Grey’s firm solely uses typewriters, despite the fact that it’s 2002, because he is notably eccentric.
Partially due to the lack of word processors, Lee makes occasional typos which appear to anger Grey immensely. Additionally, several of Grey’s associates are needlessly cruel to Lee. However, it becomes apparent that Grey is deriving some level of satisfaction out of forcing her to obey him. Moreover, she starts to feel satisfied by earning his approval. Grey starts to notice her self-harm marks and eventually confronts her about it, ordering her not to hurt herself anymore. Afterwards, when she makes another mistake on a letter, he spanks her over his desk while forcing her to re-read the letter. They start to enter into an intense Sub/Dom relationship which leads Lee to fall heavily for Grey. At the same time, Lee is dating Peter (Jeremy Davies), a family friend with whom she has a more milquetoast relationship.
It turns out that Grey feels disgust over his proclivities and, after finally giving in and sexually pleasuring himself to Lee, he fires her. She tries to convince him that what they have is real, but he sends her away. She tries to find other BDSM partners, but none give her what she wants. When Peter surprisingly proposes to her, Lee accepts. However, while trying on a wedding dress, she realizes that she loves Grey and leaves to confront him at his office. He tells her to put her hands and feet in place and not move. Friends and family try to talk her out of it, but she stays for three days until Grey comes and gets her. The two then enter into a real relationship and marry, continuing their Sub/Dom dynamic.
First, a short notice: This film is available on Peacock for free with ads. However, the film is very quiet at most points and the ads are much louder, so you will jump when the ad breaks happen and it breaks the movie’s tension poorly.
The prompt for this was “A Film You Would Never Watch with Family.” I actually had a hard time coming up with one, but once this one came up, I knew there was probably no other film as uncomfortably awkward to watch with your parents than this one. It’s not just that the entire film is about kinky sex practices, but that the movie is so intense in general. It doesn’t shy away from harsh experiences, whether it’s the Sub/Dom relationship between the leads, Lee’s self-harm, or her father’s alcoholism. Because of this, the few moments of levity or sincere emotion hit harder than they do in most films.
Part of what sets this movie apart is its visual storytelling and efficient use of dialogue. We don’t hear someone say that Lee’s father is an alcoholic, we just see him drinking at her sister’s wedding to the point that he can’t stand up. Later, he calls Lee from “somewhere downtown,” and it seems clear that this is not the first time this has happened. Similarly, much of the buildup of the relationship between Grey and Lee is unspoken, but communicated largely through the looks that they exchange. Special attention is paid to each of their gazes compared to other films, with him looking for her vulnerabilities and her looking for his approval. In the first real scene of emotional connection they have, when he confronts her over her cutting, we get a picture of exactly how each of them handle things. He has planned everything in the conversation out from the beginning, apparent from the fact that he has hot chocolate and a Polaroid camera placed within his reach. This is an indicator of his need to plan and control how interactions go, something that is doubled down when he avoids an unplanned interaction with attorney Tricia O’Connor. Meanwhile, Lee is feeling like her life is out of control, which is why she’s hurting herself. When he orders her never to hurt herself again, she realizes that he’s telling her that she doesn’t need to seek control, because he can offer her submission instead. Obeying him will be her form of control.
One of the most notable scenes in this movie, for a number of reasons, is the first time that Grey spanks Lee. Maggie Gyllenhaal’s face during the entire encounter conveys everything and it is front and center at the camera. In several shots, we can see both of them at the same time and we see what this action means to each of them. It is sexual, it is brutal, it is emotional, all at once. It helps that Spader manages to be commanding and in control while also unleashing himself bestially. However, it’s the short shots afterwards in which Lee puts her pinkie over Grey’s thumb and then he moves his thumb along her hand that say more than the rest of the scene. This is a moment of Lee seeing if there is something deeper there and Grey, for a moment, hinting that he is developing real feelings for her. Much like the rest of the film, it’s about what is unspoken more than about what is.
What’s interesting is that the movie does have some moments of levity to break it up, but they’re usually a strange kind of black humor. I think they just wanted to make sure that it wasn’t treating the subject as a joke. One moment is when a number of Lee’s friends are talking about being sexually harassed at work and Lee advises them to try Grey. The tongue-in-cheek nature of this conversation is so thick that Lee literally laughs at it to herself. Later, when she has sex with Peter, she says that her conditions are that she keeps her clothes on and all the lights are off. Rather than question this or protest, Peter almost injures himself trying to get the lights off as fast as possible. It puts the bare minimum “com” in rom-com, but it’s also mostly humor you couldn’t find in any other film.
Now, I do feel like I need to address a few controversies levied at the movie. First, yes, this movie does directly suggest that submission can be a substitute for self-harm. While I have witnessed this overlap anecdotally, I don’t believe that it is uniformly true. If you are considering self-harm, please seek a therapist before you seek a dom. At least in this film Lee has been seeing therapists, though they appear to have little effect. Second, we don’t really see Lee and Grey have a conversation about their limits or consent during this movie. If you’re going to actually have a BDSM relationship, it’s important to make sure that consent and limits are discussed. However, during one of the fights, Lee invokes “Time Out” in a manner that indicates she has that as a safe word, so I think the implication is that they did have the conversation, just not on screen. I’d also point out that this is movie is under two hours long, so naturally, it might not cover everything correctly, because, let’s be honest, going over a “contract” seems like a boring scene. Instead, we just get the scenes of them having fun and living honestly with each other. *Edit* I have been told the contract is a massive part of 50 Shades of Grey, which I will include on my list of reasons for not seeing that movie.
Overall, this movie is not for everyone, but if you haven’t seen it, maybe give it a try. You might like it.
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