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*** 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.
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.
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.
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.
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