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Image Entertainment presents
Spanking the Monkey (1994)

"All I ask is that you take care of your mother. Is that so hard?"
- Tom (Benjamin Hendrickson)

Review By: Joel Cunningham   
Published: March 23, 2006

Stars: Jeremy Davies, Alberta Watson
Other Stars: Carla Gallo, Benjamin Hendrickson
Director: David O. Russell

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (disturbing sexual themes, nudity, language)
Run Time: 01h:39m:18s
Release Date: December 06, 2005
UPC: 014381139020
Genre: black comedy

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B+ B+BC+ C

DVD Review

College students who move back home after college can usually expect an awkward period of re-adjustment, but I don't think (and I hope and pray), that it isn't usually quite so bad as what Raymond (Jeremy Davies) faces when he comes home for the summer to take care of his bedridden mother in director David O. Russell's notorious 1994 debut, Spanking the Monkey, which attracted as much attention for its squirmy content as its general originality and high quality when it played at the Sundance Film Festival that year, turning Russell into an indie sensation overnight.

Raymond is from a postage stamp of a town and has done his best to forget it. He's studying medicine at MIT and has just landed a prestigious summer internship when his father, Tom (Benjamin Hendrickson), who sells self-help videos, tells him to cancel his plans and stay home to take care of Mom (Alberta Watson), who broke her leg in a fall after attempting to kill herself with pills. Raymond is roped in, but finds being home again stifling. He's forced to wait on his mother, to carry her to the toilet and stand on the other side of the shower curtain so she can hold herself up while bathing, actions that seem innocent enough (if a tad inappropriate) at first, but not so much later, when she asks him to rub lotion on her dry skin.

She's controlling him in other ways, asking for details of his sex life and criticizing an essay he's written for a school assignment (frustrated in a dead-end marriage, she is perhaps remembering her own plans to become a doctor). The whole experience raises disquieting, unspoken feelings in Raymond, and he has no outlet to, er, relieve himself—every time he locks himself in the bathroom, the family dog whines at the door, and he meets a high school girl (Carla Gallo) who seems interested but also much too young. Unfortunately for everyone involved, including the audience, his attention turns toward Mom; the two commit the deed fairly early on, leaving a good hour of movie to handle the fallout.

Though there isn't what you'd call a sex scene between mother and son (never before has an abrupt cut to black been greeted with more joy), I can't imagine anything worse than what is shown. Somehow the intimacy of watching Raymond rub lotion onto his mother's feet, then moving up to her calves, and finally, even sliding his hand down inside of her cast to rub her thighs, is even more excruciating, and the sequence left me literally writhing in my seat in agony, covering my eyes and whimpering softly (I guess it's a good thing I didn't see it in the theater).

Of course, my reaction speaks to Russell's skill at creating believable characters, and his talent as a director is undeniable. This movie would make you feel dirty minus the overt sex—the entire thing has the oppressive air of emotional repression, of constant political posturing and striving for dominance. The actors are good, and so is the dialogue, but though there are moments of truth and even humor throughout, it's still an unpleasant, almost repellent, movie. Russell has admitted as much; in Peter Biskind's great book Down and Dirty Pictures, he says he decided to follow this film with the raucous screwball comedy Flirting with Disaster because he didn't want to be known as the guy who made incest movies no one wanted to see. Yet the movie got a reaction out of people, was a sensation at Sundance, actually made a little bit of money, and gave the director a career.

In the end, Spanking the Monkey isn't just about literal incest, not really, but about the strange power struggles that occur between parent and child, and the need of offspring to ultimately escape and form their own identities. Is illustrating that in such a literal and sick-making fashion wise? If you're David O. Russell, looking to attract attention and start a career with your first film, then in retrospect, yes. If you're looking to sell a lot of DVDs, probably not so much.

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: B+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: This low-budget film looks pretty good on DVD. Colors appear natural, and while some detail is lost in darker scenes, blacks appear fairly solid. THe source print looks to be in very good condition, and though it shows some grain, it isn't distracting. I noted a bit of mosquito noise in spots, but, again, nothing really obvious.

Image Transfer Grade: B


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishno

Audio Transfer Review: The English stereo mix is pretty basic, but then, the film is fairly undemanding. Dialogue is always understandable, though it tends to sound a bit flat or unnatural here and there. There isn't much of a score and no real need for lots of sound effects, so there isn't much to fill out the mix.

Audio Transfer Grade: C+


Disc Extras

Animated menu with music
Scene Access with 21 cues and remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by director David O. Russell
Packaging: Keep Case
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL

Extra Extras:
  1. Photo gallery
Extras Review: Fine Line handled theatrical distribution, but Spanking the Monkey comes to DVD from Image rather than New Line, for some reason. Anyway, the DVD is decent.

The chief bonus is a reserved commentary from director David O. Russell, who provides some good production info and thematic insights... when he isn't cringing at the screen. He says this is a movie he has a lot of trouble watching, and says he has done his best to distance himself from such oogy material in his subsequent work. Calling it a film made for maybe 15 percent of the population (overstatement!), Russell admits, "This is not a movie I would want to go see today. I just don't want to see this s***, or think about it." So say we all, dude.

Image also provides the trailer and a photo gallery, along with a booklet that includes the text of Caryn James' review from the New York Times.

Extras Grade: C


Final Comments

Spanking the Monkey is a good film, gently handling an enormously difficult subject with underplayed humor and restraint. It launched writer/director David O. Russell into the indie hall of fame, and established what has been proven a fruitful career. And I never, ever want to watch it again. If you see only one incest film, see this one, I suppose, but... why see any at all? Nevertheless, those with stronger stomachs than mine will appreciate the fine, bargain-priced DVD from Image.


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