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In the fading summer of 1999, Robert Zemeckis took a break from the filming of Cast Away to make What Lies Beneath, a ghostly thriller set against the banks of Lake Champlain in picturesque Burlington, Vermont. Taking cues from several Old Hollywood classics of the genre but adding a spectral twist to the proceedings, Zemeckis went on to craft one of the most underrated and effective offerings from that era (released at a time when there was a lot of competition in flicks like Stir of Echoes and The Sixth Sense). Michelle Pfeiffer and Harrison Ford were his first choices for the leads roles — Claire and Dr. Norman Spencer, an apparently happy couple with demons to spare — and swiftly made themselves available. Ford reportedly made sure to clear space in his schedule to accommodate What Lies Beneath, and for unsuspecting viewers predisposed to seeing a certain heroic brand of Ford, it ended up proving to be one of the most surprising and exciting turns of his illustrious film career.
It goes without saying that Harrison Ford has crafted many an iconic character throughout his many decades contributing to the silver screen. Here, it is more than fair to assert Ford is cast against type, but the audience isn’t necessarily aware just how against type his duplicitous husband is until fairly late in the piece. Multilayered and guarded to a sinister extent, the actor nails the role, and it’s thrilling to witness the chilling extent of his character’s true intentions rise to the surface. While the trademark stoicism remains, the darker, more twisted psychology of the role allows Ford to exhibit a truly different side — especially as the thriller hurtles through its frenetic third act to the tune of a jittery, anxiety-inducing Alan Silvestri score.
‘What Lies Beneath’ Is a Haunting Thriller
What Lies Beneath remains the closest Ford has come to making a horror film. Here, Ford’s pragmatic, middle-aged doctor is a dedicated scientist and lecturer. In fact, it seems the audience is simply being introduced to another well-meaning family man. Erroneous. Married to Pfeiffer’s Claire and stepfather to Claire’s daughter Caitlin (Katharine Towne), Spencer is further presented as a decent and caring (if not always present) figure whose workaholic tendencies place increased strain on the relationship he has with his spouse. Once Caitlin embarks for college and leaves their quiet, stately lakeside manse for the vibrancy of the dorms, Claire begins to suspect forces unseen may be trying to communicate to her.
Feeling profoundly empty with Caitlin gone and Norman away at the lab for extended periods, Claire’s isolation and prolonged periods of being alone at home feed into her burgeoning fear. She also spends a lot of time spying on her bickering neighbors and begins to suspect that the woman next door was murdered. Bathtubs fill inexplicably, the same framed picture falls multiple times, stereos blare to life without warning, and watery visages appear in the lake. Could the woman she’s seeing and hearing be the neighbor’s slain wife? Or is her over-protective and increasingly skeptical husband involved? The questions mount as Zemeckis piles on red herrings and misdirections. The director cleverly uses space and long sweeping shots to execute his nifty paranormal vehicle, and What Lies Beneath ends up serving as an unexpected departure for both the director and Ford.
As Claire’s obsession with whatever has invaded their home spirals, so too does her desperation. Norman becomes evasive and eventually incredulous, impatient with her insistence as she undertakes her own investigation. Led down the path of a missing college student from a year before, Claire fixates on Madison (Amber Valletta), a young woman whose appearance appears to match the spirit bedeviling their home. Worn down by fear, self-doubt and a growing sense that she may be losing her grip, Claire falls down a rabbit hole and subsequently begins to shine the light on the series of events behind the perceived ghost’s infiltration. Up until the film’s midpoint, Norman is portrayed by Ford as an increasingly agitated observer. Mildly concerned at first, he eventually begins to suspect his wife is concocting the story to derail his research and reputation. It’s here that the first signs of the character’s narcissism arrive, and Ford deftly shifts from surface-level care to a deep-seated cunning. He sends his wife to a psychiatrist in the hopes the “ghost” can be eliminated through therapy and tries to dodge any suggestion he may be withholding information until Claire is given a preternatural glimpse at a past encounter between the two — a memory buried due to a traumatic incident the year before.
The shedding of layers occurs gradually. Ford’s Spencer dismisses Claire’s fantasies as delusion, consistently trivializing the matter until his past actions are remembered by Claire. Doing away with the incredulity and reappearing sincere again becomes the new play for Norman — but only because it becomes apparent that his livelihood is in jeopardy. The way Ford’s portrayal gradually shifts from apparently noble protector to self-serving manipulator is a delicate switch. Unlike The Fugitive, his protagonist looks to be running from something he is, in fact, completely responsible for!
Harrison Ford as a Villain Is Brilliant Casting
The inherent ingenuity of the film is in its casting. For in spite of it becoming increasingly clear that Norman is deceitful, it’s hard to immediately accept him as the primary perpetrator. Even as the proud facade continues to slide, the surprises remain undulled. Ford’s typically heroic appeal is disarming in What Lies Beneath, even if early on one might detect the vague sense that his character is haunted by vaulted secrets itching for escape. The sentences that trail off, the gazes into space when talking to Claire … the signs are all there.
Recently, Bill Skarsgard’s presence in Barbarian misdirected audiences accustomed to his leering portrayal of Pennywise in IT. On the against-type-casting front, Denzel Washington shifted gears considerably when he played corrupt cop Alonzo Harris in Training Day in what has become arguably the icon’s most memorable, powerful role. And Henry Fonda famously played a very uncharacteristic dark part in Sergio Leone‘s Once Upon a Time in the West, subbing in for the inimitable Gian Maria Volonté as the film’s chief antagonist in the piece. In the case of Ford in What Lies Beneath, however, it’s never immediately obvious just how cold and calculating his character might be, and it’s the subtle sense of deception and slow-emerging villainy imbued by both star and director that render the experience so effective. With pressure building on Norman and his connection to the missing Madison becoming more clear, Claire seeks closure. Following confrontations and a futile attempt by Norman to “exorcise” the spirit, Claire exerts every ounce of energy to extract the absolute, unambiguous truth regarding the student’s demise but is consistently met with varying forms of denial.
Unconvinced, she persists to her own detriment. Norman, when in control, makes it clear he is capable of going to the farthest lengths to protect his life work and status quo. Shot mid-length and cast in half-shadow, the full extent of the character’s arrant heartlessness is revealed. Suffice to say, What Lies Beneath‘s final 30 minutes evolve into a jaw-dropping outlier in Ford’s filmography. It’s a thoroughly dark role inhabited by Ford, and the film’s effectiveness is heightened by the actor’s presence. The viewer is reluctant to fully accept his Spencer as a villain in the traditional sense until it’s far too late. It’s a credit to the actor’s interpretation of a multi-layered character and a script which drip-feeds its arcs. The viewer is swept up in the plight of its heroine, as well as the narrative diversions and occasionally well-worn trappings of the genre, before having to fully reckon with Ford’s villainous turn.
The actor’s patented rugged charm is still here but only in part — a fallible outer layer veiling the self-absorbed and murderously determined true character within. Windows into Norman’s treachery are provided early, but they are subtle peepholes into someone whose concerns are ultimately shallow. When all bets are off, Ford is playing a character who will go down any and every road necessary to sustain a faux-perfect life. You may not realize it at first, but once Zemeckis starts turning the screws, it becomes abundantly clear that this is a serious detour for one of our biggest movie stars.