For those of us old enough to remember back before the advent of computers, word processors, spell checkers and speedy printers, if one made a mistake typing on an old, manual typewriter, the only remedy was to retype the entire page. That is, unless one had the brand name cover-up substance to "white out" the error and thus allow for retyping over the newly non-existent problem.
All of that comes into play in "Secretary," a thought-provoking, disturbing and hard to categorize film. Set in present day Florida rather than the past, the story concerns a disturbed lawyer who forces his secretaries to do all of their typing on manual typewriters.
It's not because he's too cheap to buy them computers, but rather that the lack of computerized grammar and spell checkers would likely result in errors. He could then use such mistakes to justify reprimanding them in a bit of bait designed to lure them into a little S&M game of dominant boss and submissive secretary.
The setup is rife with comedic or dramatic potential, not to mention controversy and shock. Working from the short story by Mary Gaitskill, writer Erin Cressida Wilson (making her debut) and director Steven Shainberg ("Hit Me") have fashioned an unsettling yet captivating look at a decidedly different sort of relationship. Somewhat like David Cronenberg's "Crash" that examined people who were aroused by car crash scenes, this one focuses on a behind-closed-doors behavior that no one has any idea of how prevalent or not it might be.
Lest anyone think this is a tale of the big bad predator luring in the na´ve victim who eventually turns him in to the authorities or moves on after some brief experimentation, the twist here is that the young woman seeks out such behavior and eventually views it as her interpretation of love.
It shouldn't come as a surprise that she comes from a dysfunctional family that led to her early self-mutilation behavior, eventual institutionalization, and her replacement of that with the S&M bit. On the other hand, we don't know much about him beyond hints that he apparently follows the same pattern from which he wants to break free, but for various reasons he cannot.
While the two thus seem made for each other, the overall scenario and specific behavior will likely be unsettling, upsetting or just plan old unsavory for many viewers. Yet, the filmmakers don't portray them or their relationship as that, nor do they take a David Lynch type approach at telling their tale.
Instead, they view it as an alternative style love story where the rules of attraction, courtship and relationships are decidedly askew from the norm. The way in which the filmmakers mount and then let their story unfold is intriguing, but it doesn't exactly do the greatest job in getting the viewer to completely believe or buy into what's transpiring. The story also begins to falls part toward the conclusion where everything feels rushed and pushes the boundaries of believability even further than what's been required to accept the rest of the film.
As the two unique characters, however, Maggie Gyllenhaal ("40 Days and 40 Nights," "Riding in Cars With Boys") and James Spader ("The Watcher," "Sex, Lies and Videotape") bring the right nuances to their roles, although the occasional off-kilter material and related behavior they're required to exhibit prevents their performances from being standouts (although they're undoubtedly memorable).
Even so, Gyllenhaal is rather credible as the young woman with a penchant for pain, although I felt a more in-depth exploration of her character would have helped her and the film. Even so, she's quite good in the part. No stranger to playing characters who inhabit the dark and/or underbelly side of life, Spader has some terrific acting moments (particularly when his character worries about his behavior and addiction), but is also undermined by some of the material (or lack thereof).
In fact, it would have been fun - or at least more interesting - had the filmmakers delved deeper into his character and/or played more with the question of what his real intentions were at any given moment. While some of that is present as he repeatedly alternates between hot and cold, more of that would have made for a more engaging and intriguing experience.
Beyond those two, Jeremy Davies ("Up at the Villa," "Saving Private Ryan") shows up as the woman's boyfriend and then fiancÚ, while Lesley Ann Warren ("Trixie," "The Limey") embodies the concerned mother. In the end, however, they end up falling into the shadows of what's essentially just a two-person show.
On the surface, the film may appear to be a sensationalistic piece of soft-core porn that uses its S&M material in nothing but an exploitative or titillating way. When one gets past the sadistic and sensually erotic material, however, the film boils down to a love story where the participants stumble into a unique relationship that's simultaneously scary and reassuring to them. While it obviously won't appeal or maybe even make sense to most mainstream viewers, "Secretary" is worth checking out -- if you get can get past the material - simply for being so different and intriguing. It rates as a 6.5 out of 10.