A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Sleeping with the Enemy is a 1991 drama, based on a 1987 novel by Nancy Price, that pretends to be about domestic abuse but feels more like a horror movie played for suspense and chills. A wealthy financier brutally hits his young beautiful wife and then apologizes for what he euphemistically calls "quarreling." He controls her every move, strangling her freedom until she meticulously puts into action her long-planned escape scheme. Stalking, attempted murder, actual murder, gun violence, clothed sex, and language including "f--k" and "s--t" make this iffy for kids.
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What's the story?
In SLEEPING WITH THE ENEMY, Laura (Julia Roberts) is the young wife of wealthy financier Martin (Patrick Bergin). Their marriage seems perfect, but quickly Martin's insistence on controlling Laura's every move, on the towels hanging just so and the canned goods facing forward in the cabinets, hint at pathological underpinnings. Martin's quiet voice masks his violent abuse of the defenseless and isolated Laura. The secrecy of her patient, long-term plan to escape him underscores the terror under which she lived through the three-year marriage. She remakes herself, settling in a small Midwestern town with a new name, but lives in fear that he'll track her down. Living with that fear informs the plotting, which includes a score and camerawork designed to encourage the audience to imagine terror and doom in every shadow. A violent climax allows good to triumph, but not without first suggesting the possibility that evil might come out on top.
Is it any good?
In the effort to bolster a straightforward domestic abuse plot with creaky horror clichés, this movie is at least 20 minutes too long. Unnecessary minutes are wasted as the psychotic husband stalks the escaped wife at a carnival and the camera lingers forever as the wild-eyed man stares at his wife from afar. Director Joseph Rubin's strange choice of treating Sleeping with the Enemy more like a vampire story than one of domestic abuse almost mocks the real tragedy that so many abused spouses actually experience. Martin becomes a caricature that has more in common with the shark in Jaws -- complete with his own personal manipulative scary soundtrack -- than with the true terror caused by a violently abusive husband.
Even when goodness is about to triumph, Martin lumbers ahead like the walking dead, surging relentlessly toward the terrified Laura, despite having been shot in the chest numerous times. It's as if the director, not trusting the inherent drama of the story, prefers to stoop to cheap cinematic manipulation and to abandon all semblance of reality. In one such example, as Martin searches for Laura's new boyfriend, he mistakenly attacks someone else with a gun. The guy persuades Martin he has the wrong man and Martin runs off. Why doesn't the man call the police? Why doesn't he warn others of the maniac on the loose? Viewers may be prompted to ask such reasonable questions, but there won't be any reasonable answers.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about why women can feel trapped in violent relationships. Abusers often isolate their victims the way the husband does in Sleeping with the Enemy. What are some other ways they make it difficult for their victims to leave them?
In the movie, the husband insists the wife account for her whereabouts at all times, making it hard for her to have enough private time to get away from him. How much more difficult do you think it would've been for the wife to get away had she been poor? Do you think poverty plays a role in whether victims are able to escape their tormentors? Why?
What elements of the movie make this feel more like a horror movie than a movie about a social problem?
How do you determine what is acceptable behavior in a relationship, and how do you identify someone who is abusive? What should you do if you or someone you know is being abused?
- In theaters: February 8, 1991
- On DVD or streaming: December 1, 2009
- Cast: Julia Roberts, Patrick Bergin, Kevin Anderson
- Director: Joseph Ruben
- Studio: 20th Century Fox
- Genre: Horror
- Run time: 99 minutes
- MPAA rating: R
- MPAA explanation: for wife abuse terror and a sex scene
- Last updated: March 16, 2020
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