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Natural Enemies aka Hidden Thoughts, based on a novel by Julius
Horowitz, is a serious and incredibly intriguing film that begins with
a voice-over narration by the Father/Husband (Hal Holbrook) telling us
his reasons why he is heavily leaning towards shooting his manic
depressive wife (Louise Fletcher), his three neglected children, and
then himself. This is a man at the end of his rope, and you realize the
film just began.
Throughout the film he speaks of many topics such as monotony, predictability, disappointment, lack of emotion, connection and love. His words and demeanor are at times sullen, blunt, and always feeling as if thought through entirely. You tag along as he visits a brothel, talks with suspecting friends, and as well watch him struggle and overwhelm himself, others, and the viewer with his thoughts and pessimistic stances. You watch the film in a very uncertain manner, wondering if any of his many interactions will have any lasting affect.
Natural Enemies takes all the correct turns when attempting to feel like a true slice of life, and with such great writing and acting, the film delivers a consistently difficult, at times relatable, and always thoughtful story.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Hal Holbrook, as reliably strong an actor as they come, plays Paul
Steward, a successful publisher of a scientific journal, and married
with three children. The character is introduced to the audience as he
begins what will become a tragic day, his gloomy narration immediately
setting the tone for the film and, in no uncertain terms, announcing
that he intends to kill his family and himself. One of the first hints
of Paul's dementia is when he climbs into bed with his sleeping wife,
Miriam (Louise Fletcher, tremendous), and masturbates against her back.
Waking, she blithely asks for a tissue; clearly she is not new to this
Through his matter-of-fact recitations of a life lived, Paul reveals that his marriage to Miriam is in tatters, partly because she suffered a nervous breakdown years earlier and has not recovered. He describes how he feels estranged from his kids (of whom we learn virtually nothing), and that his work no longer yields even marginal satisfaction. He is implacably unhappy and an inveterate existentialist. Throughout the fateful day chronicled, Paul behaves with finality, summarily and cavalierly rejecting articles proffered for his magazine, spending his lunch hour in an orgiastic session at a nearby brothel, then listening halfheartedly as his friend, Harry (Jose Ferrer, outstanding in a small role), a Holocaust survivor who takes note of Paul's despair, tries to counsel him.
NATURAL ENEMIES is deeply, deeply pessimistic. Any glimmer of hope, of which there are few, is quickly usurped by obsidian darkness. Especially depressing is the final scene, in which Miriam, aware of her husband's violent ideation, makes a heartfelt, lucid plea for his heart and mind. Paul listens, stone-faced, before the shot freeze-frames on him, and the soundtrack crackles with a news report of the mass-murder-suicide to come. Writer-Director Kanew, who has yet to again craft something as substantial as this, handles the sensitive material with the earnestness it requires, and he has a top-flight cast to buttress his work. The dialogue is rife with meaningful ruminations on the origins of happiness. A false note is the script's implicit contention that such familial slaughters were epidemic at the time (not true, despite such high-profile contemporary cases as those of John List and Brad Bishop), and the dubious conclusion that these acts stem from patriarchal society's dim view of the chances a man's family has should he become incapacitated mentally or physically.
Magazine editor Hal Holbrook, husband to a manic depressive and father to three kids who ignore him, contemplates killing himself with a rifle after first eliminating each member of his family. Technically adept, solidly performed drama is decidedly grim, occasionally insufferable, but undeniably potent--and surprisingly relevant to the times. Director Jeff Kanew, who also adapted Julius Horwitz's novel, goes out on a limb with this non-commercial material, yet he makes a few missteps in the process. With the firm conclusion that "all married men have this fantasy", Kanew seems to think that familial obliteration is an all-encompassing issue--an epidemic among dissatisfied husbands and middle-aged fathers--without any facts to back this up. Kanew's decision to have the man's wife suddenly come out of her fog and attempt to reach her husband with intelligent conversation doesn't quite work; most viewers won't be able to connect with him, either--he's like the evil villain on a soap opera--all of which causes Kanew's ending to seem like a cop-out (especially the way it's presented). Louise Fletcher gets some good speeches as the Mrs., and her forthright plea for mutual understanding is commendable, but Kanew doesn't allow her to be strong, and the three children (who have no lines, nor personalities) appear to be equally lethargic and dim. Hal Holbrook's lead performance is unvarying in its grimness and, while he's a superlative actor, one tends to recoil from scenes of him sexing it up at a brothel (or, even more excruciating, chit-chatting with the naked prostitutes in bed about his ground-up life). Many interesting points are made in the midst of a dramatic muddle, and yet the coldness inherent in the handling comes off as abject indifference. **1/2 from ****
This is a film that has been sadly neglected over time. I'm still
unsure why it hasn't received a DVD or Blu-Ray release. As a cinematic
portrayal of severe and isolating depression it has few peers. It
compares favourably with the likes of Taxi Driver as a thorough and
focused examination of an articulate yet highly damaged mind.
Hal Holbrook is superb in this film, exemplifying his talent. His character of Paul Steward is by turns sympathetic, disturbing, cruel and intelligent. Only a few years after her role as the monstrous Nurse Ratched, Louise Fletcher puts in a very strong role as Paul's wife, who is loving but woefully poor at communication until it is too late.
Every scene in the film focuses on Paul as he tries to express his rage, frustration and despair to anyone who will listen. His pleas are met with scepticism and well meaning but ultimately useless advice. He seemingly has it all, a family and a high flying job but something about his whole existence and outlook is broken beyond repair. His misguided and half hearted attempts to fix things prove ineffective. The simple and unflashy direction is completely appropriate to the situation at hand.
There's no easy solutions offered by this film which really helps the viewer see Paul's hopeless and detached perspective. The ending is somewhat predictable but in a way is made more powerful because of that, it feels true to the situation depicted. Definitely not a film to warm the heart but as a mature and captivating insight into the horrendously bleak mindsets people can fall into it is entirely worth seeing.
When Natural Enemies premiered in 1979, cable television had still not
evolved, and of those few people who used computers nobody yet had
heard of accessing something called the Internet, so people were still
forming many of their opinions regarding the historical and social
events of other countries based on movies. Little had changed in 1981,
especially in places such as Argentina, where I watched Natural Enemies
after happening upon an advertisement on a small sign outside a movie
Did the Argentinian people who endured the story leave the theater believing that the United States needed to deal with its growing problem of murder-suicide? Did they return home after the movie feeling relieved knowing that the worst of their families were not nearly so dysfunctional? Did they ask themselves how many working people in the U.S. were making a similar daily commute through the dreary outskirts of an old, grey, in-need-of-renewal city? Maybe if the lead character could have moved his family (from someplace in the Northeast, I think) to somewhere where the sun shined, he could have begun to see his life's circumstances as less hopeless.
I would only recommend Natural Enemies to someone who prefers movies with realism, even when that means seeing the most unpleasant aspects of society, because this story can depress a viewer like no other. I would say, too, that the believable performances make this film watchable.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I have had the good fortune to have seen a handful of movies that have
really stirred an emotion in me - lingered with me for years. 'Natural
Enemies' is no different. As a young single man, this film has such a
profound effect on me. Never has such a film effected me since I seen
'The Fire Within (1963)'. Paul (played by Hal Holbrook) and Miriam
(played by Louise Fletcher) are in a loveless marriage bereft of any
happiness. Miriam suffers from clinical depression and was hospitalized
several times. Paul is an intelligent middle-aged man who is a magazine
editor who has noticed in the papers, many murder-suicides perpetrated
by the father - murdering their entire family and then themselves. He
pays five hookers to fulfill a final fantasy before killing himself and
'Natural Enemies' is a deeply affecting tour DE force. It does resemble 'My Dinner with Andre (1981)' in that similar issues and ideas are discussed about society and where it is heading. There are many thought-provoking discussions throughout the film where Paul's friends and acquaintances try to reason with him but his counterarguments are so methodical and well-thought out that they have nothing to add. The first of such meetings is with an astronaut about the possibility of him writing an article. What ensues is an intoxicating contemplative discussion about what it was like up on the moon and how that loneliness up there is like the loneliness that we carry around every day. Paul concludes that no matter what you do in your life you will never have a moment up there like that again and how sad that is. Paul meets his friend who is a Holocaust survivor who is frustrated that so many have forgotten the horrors of Nazi Germany and Paul retorts in a thought-provoking statement: "what were you expecting? Outrage? This in 1978 the youth care only about tennis and discos!"...chilling. He gets a Taxi and yet another profound discussion ensues. The taxi-driver states that life in the city has gone to the dogs. The Taxi-driver went to a doctor complaining with a pain in his stomach and his doctor said that it was because of the times. This shouldn't be. He met his friend again, the Holocaust survivor at a diner where his friend was worried about his intentions to kill his family and himself. The survivor was trying to reason with him - to no avail - he said that he knew all too well what death was but Paul said that "life today is not all that different from the Holocaust." That what was the point in continuing when life was misery and what was the point in having children when they don't talk to you? What was the point in running after women and money? At the end of the conversation his friend thought he was getting somewhere with him only for Paul to state that "what is the point in killing myself? I am dead already." Only for his friend to shake his head in disappointment. He couldn't get through to him.
Even thou their marriage was dead, they still needed each other. They still hung on to each other like when Paul found Miriam hysterical on the floor, shouting.."I WANT TO DIE", Paul comforted her. Miriam was frantically trying to stop Paul from killing himself. They needed each other. The would be lost without each other. They fall into each others unhappiness as into a well. At the bottom is a great sun that warms the earth. They are use to conformity and familiarity and you introduce change to their lives and you have introduced the downward spiral. 'Natural Enemies' haunts me. It is sad that it is so unknown. Under 100 votes - it is fair to say that you won't see a film like it again. I certainly won't. 9/10
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