Rated PG-13 - Running time: 1:35 - Released 3/6/98

After a reasonably respectable showing in January's Great Expectations, Gwyneth Paltrow has followed up excellently with this season's Fatal Attraction-style thriller, Hush. Cast opposite Oscar-winner Jessica Lange, Paltrow makes abundantly clear her ability to compete with one of the best actresses in the business. And in between these two powerhouse performances, it's impossible for Johnathon Schaech to look like much more than a handsome decoration.

As the film opens, Jackson Baring (Schaech) is taking his lover Helen (Paltrow) home to Virginia from New York City for Christmas and to meet his mother, Martha (Lange). The sprawling horse farm and imposing mansion is a total surprise for Helen, and despite an embarassing first impression (Martha finds her nude in Jackson's bed), the two women seem to get along. Martha hopes that Jackson will move back home and revive their failing racehorse business, but Jackson says no; he and Helen have their own life started in the city. Though Martha doesn't hide her disappointment at the prospect of selling the home she's known all her adult life, she tries to accept their decision. But when Helen mysteriously gets pregnant (after Martha sabotages her diaphragm), the couple get married and decide maybe it would be best for all concerned if they moved to the farm, at least to bring it back up to standard so that it can be sold for a profit.

As she spends the duration of her pregnancy on the farm, Helen begins to notice that Martha wields an incredible power over her only son, and she tries unsuccessfully to exert it on Helen, too. Befriended by Martha's mother-in-law Alice (Nina Foch), who resides in a nursing home, Helen becomes increasingly alarmed as Alice confides that although she seems sickeningly sweet on the surface, Martha has more of an agenda than she shows. And indeed, before the baby is born, Helen is literally running for her life.

It is hard to say whose performance is more stunning, between Paltrow and Lange. The increasing sense of panic swelling inside Paltrow alongside her baby is thick, almost tangible, as the two women's strained relationship escalates from a few mysterious remarks to an all-out roller coaster ride. Lange exudes sweetness and good intentions on the surface, and, until the end, betrays her dark side only enough to make us squirm a little. One can see the wheels turning in her mind throughout the film, but never can we begin to predict exactly what she's up to.

With actors like these two, it wasn't hard for director Jonathan Darby to convey the ever-growing angst buried in the powerful script crafted by him and Michael Cristofer. And the setting is a perfect contrast to its sinister plot. Beautiful scenery and Andrew Dunn's sweeping cinematography combine to produce spectacular images of a sunny farm in rural Virginia, suggesting a quiet, pastoral feel. Once again, an excellent choice to balance Helen's awful struggle against the dark reaches of Martha's mind. After several decades of mother-in-law jokes in movies and TV, Hush takes it to where it's not even funny. ****

Copyright 1998 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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