Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal) just got out of a mental institution for cutting her self due to stress, and now comes home to even more stress including her overprotective mother (Leslie Anne Warren) and resorts back to her old habits. She soon decides to get a job in typing and instantly becomes skilled, looking for a job. She stumbles upon a small law firm run by a militant E. Edward Grey (James Spader) who is mostly professional and soon develops an odd fascination with her. They soon find they each have a fancy for the sadomasochistic. The aspect that makes this movie so unique is that both characters are so pathetic at times, and somehow become drawn to each other. Grey is a lawyer in a quiet and boring firm who quivers in his office, and Holloway is a nimble and meek girl who tends to hide behind her desk; self inflicted torture is what draws them together emotionally and sexually.
But they soon have a fascination and fetish for the sadomasochistic; Lee is a very meek individual and is spotted by Grey’s ex-wife with much disgust. At one point she instantly catches on to Grey’s attempts and remarks at Holloway’s: “Submissive”. Lee is submissive at the opener and for much of the film, often yearning for punishment by Grey. Grey is a dominant man who lines up his markers perfectly and often keeps everything in order. When he discovers Lee can’t perform to his level, he punishes her brutally, and much to her disbelief she loves it. This is a quirky and eccentric character study that is driven solely on the emphasis on these two characters who are very interesting and often humorous. Often a time through the movie Grey will inflict punishment on Holloway’s character which somehow helps her confidence and self-esteem. He instantly detracts from her sexually and she’ll pine for his attention until he notices her. These are two unique characters who have many things in common; Shainberg doesn’t glorify S&M, nor does he make it overtly sexual to the point where it’s pathetic, yet presents two people who have an affinity for it.
I was rather skeptical about the movie, but upon the opener we see Lee bound by an S&M device running errands for Grey which instantly drew my attention and fascination. The film manages to keep me interested the entire way through; the S&M sexual scenes are intentionally humorous yet oddly interesting. Holloway soon becomes dependent upon Grey’s punishment often intentionally making errors in her letters for him awaiting punishment. He even hangs her red marked letters among the walls like small trophies which only arouses Lee more. Soon Grey discovers that he is beginning to feel guilty and draws slowly away from Holloway; by the end we see a reversal of roles within the characters. Grey is no longer the dominant often pulling away from her and avoiding her, and Holloway transforms into a dominant character pursuing Edward and yearning for his punishment.
She even takes an enormous leap and performs an odd stunt for his love sitting at his desk awaiting his return to her for days. What makes her fascinating is that she sits in the same spot without food or water and literally sitting in her own waste. The film tends to take a nosedive in the sentimental with the two instantly bonding and making gentle love in which Holloway instantly becomes submissive once more letting herself become vulnerable in Grey’s hands, but the ending tends to leave the door open to their relationship as we experience how truly twisted, eccentric and vastly fascinating their sexual connection is. This is a fascinating character study of unconventional relationships fueled by fetish and driven by great performances by Gyllenhaal and Spader.