It’s always that essential sumthin’-sumthin’. I study movies in order to figure out what works and what doesn’t. Helps a lot with my writing.
I’d like to dissect two movies, similar themes– Sleeping With the Enemy starring Julia Roberts and Enough starring Jennifer Lopez. (I’m gonna go out on a limb here and claim that aside from her brilliant channeling of Selena in Selena, Slim Hiller in Enough might just be Jennifer Lopez’s best role. Besides, the child actor in the film, Tessa Allen who plays Gracie Hiller, gives an amazing performance. Her performance alone is reason enough to watch Enough.)
In each movie, the heroine begins as a victim and end up the victor. However in my book it’s Jennifer Lopez as Slim Hiller for the win. Her triumph elicits a much stronger reaction in me– like a kick in the gut, yet thoughtful at the same time.
The difference between the two women is this: Julia Roberts, or rather Laura Burney, begins and ends the movie a nice girl. Despite her decision during the climactic scene, she remains the same woman from start to finish. Her role is passive, reactive.
Slim Hiller begins the movie a nice girl, a little edgy but nice nonetheless. She ends the movie a mature woman who has made a terrible choice and must carry the burden of that choice for the rest of her life. She doesn’t react, she acts. In other words, her character grows and adapts. This makes Enough a lot more interesting to me than Sleeping With the Enemy. Besides, moral ambiguity is always more interesting. You see, I watch these movies to learn. They may be cheesy, but they are achetypally cheesy.
Of course it’s the mistakes that make for high drama. The mistakes lead directly to the eventual climax and the ultimate confrontation between the protagonist and the antagonist.
Both of these movies are useful despite their stereotypical themes/tropes. Both women flee abusive husbands. Laura Burney (Julia Roberts) fakes her own death. Slim Hiller (Jennifer Lopez) takes her young daughter and vanishes.
Both husbands, or antagonists, are exaggerated caricatures. Controlling and paranoid of course, but also intelligent, adroit, cunning, and well-connected. They have the means and the wherewithal to track down their wives.
Most men aren’t quite that resourceful, but that doesn’t mean the stories aren’t feasible.
What I like: Both women receive help, yet in the end each must face her antagonist alone and unaided. It’s great. My favorite heroine-related plot device. It’s time to put up or shut up, baby.
Laura Burney makes three major mistakes, which considering the intricacy of her plan to fake her own death, are surprisingly amateurish.
1. She flushes her wedding ring down the toilet before she disappears, which of course eventually gums up the pipes and is thus discovered, alerting said antagonist that something is amiss. Shit, our toilet has backed up because someone flushed a tiny piece of dental floss. Lesson– There are a million places to get rid of your wedding ring. Your master bathroom is not one of them. Leaving it the bay where you supposedly drowned would have been the smart thing to do.
2. She takes swimming lessons from a community pool in a neighboring town. Even though she never reveals her name, someone from her swimming class recognizes the photo in her obituary and contacts her husband to offer condolences. Lesson– If you plan to fake your own death by drowning because your husband knows you are terrified of water and can’t swim, never take swimming lessons in a community where your obit picture might possibly be seen.
3. She fakes her mother’s death too. Lesson– Cover your damn tracks. I know exactly what I would do protect my mother’s location, but of course that wouldn’t leave an opportunity for my husband to track me down. Hmmm. I suppose I could tweak the story a little bit to make it more difficult…
Slim Hiller makes fewer mistakes – after her initial mistake of marrying the guy. Of course her other mistake is refusing to go to the hospital and the police to document his physical abuse. But I can relate. I’m guilty of doing the same. But Slim’s mistakes make more sense.
As a part of Slim’s initial learning curve she makes a few typical boo-boos– such as attempting to use her credit cards and friends’ credit cards, and believing short phone calls can’t be traced. Her mistakes are like an apprenticeship, but she becomes her own mentor. The reason I prefer Enough to Sleeping With the Enemy is because the protagonist in Enough learns with each setback. Slim Hiller is a much different person by the end of the movie. She’s a survivor. Laura Burney? Not so much. Her survival seems like more of an accident.
Isn’t that what we, as authors, try to create? A character who changes over time? Movies are great for analyzing what works and what doesn’t. Sleeping With the Enemy is suspenseful, frightening, entertaining, but in the end the heroine’s journey doesn’t amount to much. Enough may lack Julia Robert’s cache, but the heroine’s journey makes it a better movie.