The spanking new movie from Steven Shainberg pairs Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader for one of the most twisted love stories ever told. Maybe that should be “the new spanking movie.” Well, we’ll get to that.
Gyllenhaal has drawn highly favorable notices for her nuanced performance. They’re well deserved. As a young woman recently released from a psychiatric facility, she comes up with one of the most intricate and compelling portrayals to grace the screen in a good long while. Spader adds a beaut to the collection of wackjobs he’s played over the years. This time he’s an attorney who practices a vague and tedious form of law as well as a bizarro brand of office discipline. Gyllenhaal answers his ad for a secretary and quickly realizes he’s the man of her low self esteem dreams. The product of a home which could be classified as flamboyantly dysfunctional on its best day, (her father’s an alcoholic; her mother submits to regular abuse), her character has a profile that includes self mutilation for pleasure. In her bedroom, she keeps stashed a secret kit containing a variety of small blades and razors along with band aids and a bottle of Iodine.
Spader’s is every bit as sick. He goes through help so routinely, a permanent, lighted “Secretary Wanted” sign hangs outside his establishment. When one worker departs, he switches it on like a motel owner announcing a vacancy and waits for the next to walk into his trap. Once he’s made a hire, he commences a subtle campaign of mind games calculated to fracture the will of his victim and empower him to exert a line-crossing degree of control over her.
Gyllenhaal has never had a job before. Until now, Spader has never had an employee as willing to indulge his weirdness. They’re a match made in wingnut heaven but both are so ill equipped to recognize, much less accept, true love and happiness that any sort of after-hours relationship initially appears impossible.
Chock full of things you don’t see every day- office help cheerfully submitting to a spanking by her boss, for example- “Secretary” is itself something one doesn’t often come across: an erotic black comedy. Shainberg, however, directs as though he patented the genre. Based on a short story by Mary Gaitskill, the script by Erin Cressida Wilson is a deliciously witty, wonderfully insightful bit of business and the film’s central performances are as rich in detail as they are in dementia. Spader’s is the most stylized of his career. Gyllenhaal’s is nothing short of a revelation. Clearly this is someone who, henceforth, won’t have to look for work. Work is certain to come looking for her.
As darkly comic as it is, Shainberg’s picture addresses themes that are deadly serious. Life scarring trauma, maladaptive psychology, socially unacceptable compulsion and self-injurious behavior are not, in themselves, laughing matters. The film’s triumph lies in the fact that it recognizes the spectrum of wreckage a psyche can sustain while celebrating the indestructible desire human beings possess for connection. In that and in its ability to find humor amid psychological havoc. The winner of a Special Jury Prize for Originality at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, the picture puts the fun back in dysfunction big time.
As personal journeys go, “Secretary” offers a pretty strange trip. It will help if you have a taste for thinking person’s kink. Suspend your inclination toward the politically correct for a couple of hours and I bet you’ll find yourself, as I did, rooting for these two loonies to live slappily ever after.