In the bygone days of The Graduate, you could still shake up audiences by showing them a college boy boffing a woman old enough to be his mother. Now she is his mother. Shit happens. In Spanking the Monkey, the shattering, shockingly funny debut film that won the Audience Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, writer-director David O. Russell shows how. His black-comic take on the subject in no way makes light of the psychological damage done. When a parent turns to a child for the companionship expected from an absentee mate, the situation can escalate. Incest is a fact of life, though it’s rarely discussed.
MIT student Raymond Aibelli (Jeremy Davies) interrupts his summer internship to play nursemaid to his pretty mom, Susan (Alberta Watson), who’s fractured her leg. Ray’s salesman father, Tom (Benjamin Hendrickson), is on the road. The son is used to his mother’s insults about his intelligence, his career, his taste in girls. She mocks his flirtation with a teen neighbor, Toni (Carla Gallo). What unites mother and son is their shared disdain for tyrannical Tom. What puts them in close quarters is Susan’s insistence that Ray carry her to the toilet and the shower and rub cream on her legs; she urges him to work his fingers as far as possible inside her cast.
You can almost feel the sexual tension. The outlet Susan offers arises from conflicted ideas of control and compassion. For Ray, who spends most of his time in the John beating off (hence the title), the sex releases emotions that he can’t control and that drive him to thoughts of suicide. It’s devastating to watch a mother and son break a moral code and then try to trade banter and act normal.
Davies gives a poignant, emotive performance that tears at the heart. And Watson is magnificent; seductive and overwhelming without losing her character’s human scale. Though there are flaws in the execution, Russell’s film is relentlessly hypnotic Without resorting to sleaze or cant, he demonstrates how quickly the unthinkable comes to pass.