In roles from sex, lies & videotape to Crash, James Spader has mapped the very farthest reaches of human sexuality. And he does it so well, substituting threatening machismo for a delicate inquisitiveness that’s wonderfully inclusive. Here again he’s the key to director Steve Shainberg’s debut feature, a daring little number for an American film since it treats some fairly perverse practices like elements in an fairy story for grown-ups. Self-mutilation, spanking and handcuffs with a light touch, but that doesn’t mean that it takes them lightly, since we see in Maggie Gyllenhaal’s immensely sympathetic performance the pitiable links between chronic insecurity and secretive self-harm. She’s already been in and out of psychiatric care by the time a small ad takes her to the offices of Spader’s E. Edward Grey, a lawyer whose very specific requirements place heavy demands on his secretarial assistance.
You sense these two might just get on as soon as she knuckles down to his finicky perfectionism and he starts wondering just how far she might consent to be pushed. Repeated typing errors prove the catalyst for sterner punishment, and soon the movie’s off in its very own wonderland, where Gyllenhaal can forget the emotional wounds she has carried alone for so long. Shainberg doesn’t make it too easy for them, thankfully, so there’s still some way to go when we think we’ve got it all mapped out. What he also does is nudge the settings into a slightly heightened Lynchian reality, a context that envelops Gyllenhaal’s courageously raw openness and the abstracted dark comedy of Spader’s inimitably odd duck. These two fit together like a jigsaw, and we’re unexpectedly, genuinely touched that they’ve found each other.
(U.S.A., 2002. Colour. Dolby digital stereo. 104 mins.)

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