Follow TV Tropes


Film / Sleeping with the Enemy

Go To

I can't live without you. And I won't let you live without me.
Martin Burney

Sleeping with the Enemy is a 1991 psychological thriller film, directed by Joseph Ruben. It was based on a 1987 novel of the same name by Nancy Price.

Laura Burney (Julia Roberts) is a woman who seemingly has it all: a beautiful home, a wealthy and handsome husband, and anything she may desire. But her idyllic life is not what it seems; her husband, Martin (Patrick Bergin), is controlling and physically abusive. Laura comes up with a plan to fake her own death and finally get away from Martin, but he won't let her go that easily.

The score by Jerry Goldsmith won the BMI Film Music Award, 1992, and the film was nominated for the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films Saturn Award for 1992 in four categories: Best Actress (Roberts), Saturn Award for Best Supporting Actor (Bergin), Best Horror Film and Best Music (Goldsmith).

This movie provides examples of:

  • Adaptation-Induced Plot Hole: In the book, Laura has to live on oatmeal and beans for months while pinching every penny after fleeing. In the film, she's inexplicably able to rent a beautiful house and afford luxuries like brand name goods, a tape deck and African violets all before she even has a job.
  • Adaptation Name Change: Minor example. In the book, Sara is the heroine's real name and Laura the alias she uses. It's the other way around in the film.
  • Adaptational Dumbass: Compared to the book, Laura is much less cautious. She keeps her wedding ring on, rather than the Idiot Ball move of flushing it down the toilet. She remains disguised all the time in the book, but, in the film, she takes her wig off as soon as she gets to Iowa. In contrast to how tight-lipped she is in the book about everything (to the degree where she avoids being seen in public with Ben), she freely discusses her abusive relationship with him and tells her mother where she's staying. She also didn't give her real name or phone number at the Y when taking swimming lessons - and the friend who gives the lessons away just coincidentally bumped into Martin at the supermarket.
  • Adaptational Heroism: There are some hints in the book that Ben is similar to Martin, and Laura has just fallen for another potential abuser. In the film he's a Nice Guy.
  • Affectionate Nickname: Martin calls Laura "Princess".
  • Age-Gap Romance: Patrick Bergin is 17 years older than Julia Roberts. The age difference, plus how young Laura is (Julia Roberts was 23 at the time the movie was released and probably even younger during filming) is very likely the reason he pursued her (they've been wed for three years, meaning that she was probably merely 19 or 20 when they met and married), as he saw her as someone he could easily control.
  • Antagonist in Mourning: Pretty much the state Martin was in when he thinks Laura is dead.
  • Apology Gift: Martin returns from a trip into town with flowers and a present of a negligée for Laura, complete with make-up sex, all to atone for slapping her earlier. Her resigned face and the way she plays along with being pleased with the gift and enjoying the sex make it clear that this is a routine they've long fallen into.
  • Attack of the Town Festival: Martin stalks Laura and Ben through a local carnival.
  • Ax-Crazy: Martin.
  • Badass Longcoat: Martin is usually seen wearing one.
  • Batman Gambit: Laura tries to start an argument with Martin the day they are due to go out on their neighbour's boat, knowing he'll think she just wants an excuse not to be out at sea because of her fear of drowning, and he'll be even more determined to make her come. It's actually what she wants, as she has secretly learned to swim and plans to use the boat trip to facilitate her escape from him.
  • Big Damn Heroes: Subverted. Ben kicks the door in and tries to fight Martin, only to be pistol-whipped into submission very quickly.
  • Big Fancy House: Martin's yuppie pad on the beach, one of "the best on Cape Cod".
  • Bleed 'Em and Weep: Laura collapses in tears after shooting Martin.
  • Break-In Threat: How Martin reveals himself to Laura after tracking her down. First, her bathroom towels are arranged the way he always insisted. She dismisses it when she sees that nothing else is out of the ordinary... until she comes home from her date and finds that now the kitchen towels have been rearranged as well, along with the cupboard, and hears the fifth movement ("Dream of a Witches' Sabbath") of Symphonie fantastique, which Martin always plays whenever he and Laura have sex, playing.
  • Broken Bird: Laura is this thanks to several years of abuse by Martin. Though she likes Ben, she's stand-offish and uncomfortable in intimate moments.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Laura inexplicably breaks one of the beach lights. When we see the flashback to how she escaped, it turns that the spot of darkness this caused marked the spot she needed to swim to for safety.
    • Unfortunately, the broken light also serves as a Chekhov's Boomerang it's what first makes Martin think that things aren't all that they seem.
  • Color-Coded for Your Convenience: Martin is almost consistently dressed in black or other dark colors throughout the film, particularly in the scenes where he has tracked Laura down and is stalking her. Because obviously the audience would otherwise never know that he's a bad guy. Conversely, except for a party dress, Laura is mostly clad in whites and pastels.
  • Control Freak: Martin is extremely fixated in having towels and food cans in his preferred specific way.
  • Crazy Jealous Guy: Martin.
  • Cut Himself Shaving: We learn that Laura told her swimming class classmates that she was a gymnast in order to explain away "all those terrible bruises".
  • Determinator: When Martin realises that Laura is still alive, he will stop at nothing to track her down.
  • Disguised in Drag: Female variation: Laura, knowing that Martin has been lurking in town, has Ben create a male disguise (complete with a fake mustache and sideburns) so she can visit her mother at the nursing home.
  • Domestic Abuse: Martin.
  • Even Evil Has Loved Ones: Subverted. Martin is clearly distraught when he thinks Laura has drowned, and in his twisted mind he probably really believes that he loves her. However, he obviously "loves" her in the same way that he loves his house, car, and other possessions, not as a human being.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: Or else a case of Pragmatic Villainy. Martin spared the life of a man he thought was Laura's new lover when he finds out that he has the wrong man (in fact, the man was another drama teacher who was actually gay). Judging by the way Martin threatened him, he didn't seem to have anything against the man's sexual preference, but he still threatened him and his lover into silence so he wouldn't get found out.
  • Expository Hairstyle Change/Important Haircut: Laura cuts her hair and wears it frizzy rather than pressed straight, representing her transformation from battered, submissive wife to free woman.
  • Faking the Dead: Laura.
  • False Soulmate: Martin to Laura.
  • Fan Disservice:
    • An interesting case with Laura and Martin's sex scene. The visual—two attractive people going at it—is technically appealing. It's the context that makes it repulsive—he's her abusive husband thinking that he's atoning for having hit her earlier while the expression on her face makes it clear that she hates every minute of this and is faking her enjoyment. Even worse, as he undresses her right before they have sex, you can see the bruises that have now formed from the beating. In a recent interview marking the film's 30th anniversary, Patrick Bergin bluntly declares "it's rape".
    • There's also Laura running around on the beach in her underwear. Any possible titillation is undone by the fact that this is a woman running for her life—she's just faked a drowning death, has swum for miles, and has very little time to get her things and get going before her husband returns home.
  • Faux Affably Evil: Martin, despite his abusive nature, often acts like a charming and suave man.
  • Foreshadowing: The film opens with Laura digging clams for dinner when Martin tells her that he's accepted a party invitation. She hurriedly says that she'll dig fresh clams the next day. Later, while getting ready for the party, she dons a white dress, only to have Martin tell her he prefers her black dress. Despite a mild protest from her that it's too chilly, the next shot is of her wearing the black dress. There's never any violence or coercion in either scene, but both of them hint at Martin's controlling nature and Laura's need to please him lest she incur his wrath.
  • "Friends" Rent Control: Laura is able to rent, fix up, and maintain a huge, beautiful home, plus pay for all her daily living expenses despite only having a part-time job at a library before her escape, and initially not working at all when she does get away. And when she does start working, she's still in a job that doesn't pay much. Even in an inexpensive place like Iowa, it's too much of a stretch.
    • She's also able to pay for her mother's care at the nursing home, and that isn't cheap either. Though this could be hand-waved away as her mother may have her own assets and that's what's paying for her continued care. The manager at her old nursing home stated that Laura simply paid the bill and left. It would also explain how the private investigator found her so quickly; Laura hadn't legally faked her mother's death, she simply lied to her husband.
  • Groin Attack: Laura does this to Martin in the climax.
  • I Have This Friend: When chatting with an elderly woman on the bus, Laura claims to have been helping a friend who was in an abusive marriage. The woman eventually catches on, asking, "How long did you stay with him?"
  • Idiot Ball: After all the plans she makes to get away from Martin, Laura basically undoes everything by failing to properly dispose of her wedding ring. When Martin inevitably finds it, it tips him off to the fact that she might still be alive.
    • Averted in the sense that Martin was already very aware that Laura might've been still alive due to a previous call about her swimming lessons. Whether he found the ring or not, he'd still be angrily trying to find her.
  • In Medias Res: The movie starts with Laura already having been married to Martin for several years and planning her escape.
  • Ironic Echo: The first time Martin makes advances to Laura, she enthusiastically responds and they have great sex. The second time, it's after he's hit her and is trying to make amends and she's visibly forcing herself not to cringe and pretend she's enjoying it.
  • Jump Scare: Towards the end, after shooting Martin three times, Laura collapses to the ground in tears, but then Martin grabs her hair and aims the gun at her. He fires the pistol, but nothing happens.
  • Leitmotif: Symphonie Fantastique—Martin's favorite piece both during the sex scene and when he invades her house and tries to get her back/kill her.
  • Lie Back and Think of England: Poor Laura is clearly invoking this during sex with Martin from the moment he makes advances to her.
  • Lifetime Movie of the Week: Spins a thriller out of the issue of domestic abuse.
  • Love Makes You Crazy: Martin.
  • Made of Iron: Novice swimmer Laura manages to swim a considerable distance without a life vest in the midst of a raging storm, conditions that an Olympic-caliber swimmer would have drowned in or at least been completely exhausted by, but she manages with ease. Truth in Television—there is a marked difference between swimming in a pool and swimming in open water that people have unfortunately learned the hard way.
    • It wasn't a straight shot to the beach from the boat, she's shown clinging to a buoy at one point, perhaps giving her an adequate amount of rest to make the rest of the journey.
  • Makeover Montage: Laura fixing up the house she's rented.
  • Marital Rape License: A variation. Although Martin doesn't outright rape Laura, his portrayer Patrick Bergin bluntly declares the post-abuse sex scene to be this, given that Laura clearly hates it and is likely only submitting and faking her enjoyment, likely out of fear of further violence.
  • Meaningful Name: Laura's new name. "Sarah" means "princess", and "Waters" refers to her supposed drowning death.
  • Mirror Scare: Window, rather. An already edgy Laura (she's noticed that her bathroom towels are arranged the way Martin always insisted and has been searching through the house for any other signs of him) goes to close a rattling window. As she does so, she sees the reflection of a man in the glass pane and screams in terror. Fortunately, it's Ben.
  • Missed Him by That Much: Laura, in disguise, is at the nursing home where her mother is and so is Martin. Of course, by the time Martin realizes that Laura was here, he's too late to intercept her and she's already driving away.
  • Murderer P.O.V.: Several shots of Ben and Laura during their late-night picnic and Laura after she enters the house imply that Martin is lurking in the bushes, watching.
  • Nice Guy: Ben.
  • Obfuscating Disability: Laura's fear of water and supposedly not knowing how to swim, due to nearly drowning as a child. As such, Martin naturally assumes she drowned in the storm, never knowing that she'd been taking lessons and become a very good swimmer.
  • Oh, Crap!: The look on Martin's face just before Laura empties her gun into him.
    • Also Laura big-time when she opens her cupboard to see the cans perfectly arranged.
  • Obsessively Organized: Martin. The towels have to be symmetrical, as do the cans of food in the cupboard— during Laura's and Martin's sex scene, his clothes can be seen perfectly laid out on a nearby chair.
  • Out-of-Character Alert:
    • While she doesn't say anything out of the ordinary, Laura's tense, aloof demeanor when Ben shows up quickly tips him off to the fact that Martin is there. Of course, he could have easily spotted his silhouette in the door.
    • Before that, Ben was alerted to the fact that Laura faced abuse in the past when during an intimate night she hesitates. She doesn't tell him the whole story until the next morning, but what he says gives a good idea that he knows enough.
      Ben: What did he do to you?
  • Police Are Useless: Laura comments with a woman on the bus she's tried calling the police on her abusive husband, and the best they could do was get a restraining order. Knowing her husband's antics, she knew it wouldn't be enough to stop him.
  • Pre-Mortem One-Liner: At the climax Laura's pointing a gun at Martin as he advances on her. Martin is in full You Wouldn't Shoot Me mode, daring Laura to call the police. Laura, her gun hand shaking, dials 911. She tells the dispatcher to please hurry, and says "I've just killed an intruder." She hangs up the phone, and then she puts three bullets into Martin.
  • Private Detective: Martin hires one of these to find Laura's mother, knowing that it's only a matter of time before Laura visits her.
  • Taking You with Me: Attempted, but averted. After shooting Martin, Laura collapses in tears. Suddenly, he grabs hold of her and points the gun at her head, pulls the trigger...and the gun's empty.
  • There Are No Therapists: Sara has some serious problems and it will take her a long time to heal. Yet the film implies that a nice boyfriend is the answer.
  • There Is No Kill Like Overkill: When Laura shoots Martin, she empties the gun into him. Which turns out to be a very good thing, as it's empty when Martin tries to shoot her with it.
  • Revealing Hug: Laura acts aroused as her husband makes advances to her, but we soon see her upset face over his shoulder throughout the entire sex scene. Is this case, however, the viewer already knows that she's faking it.
  • Rewatch Bonus: Once we see Martin slap Laura, nearly all of their previous scenes get this—her quickly going along with his party plans despite the meal she wanted to fix, her changing into the dress he prefers, her hurriedly straightening the towels and later making sure that the cabinet is in order. It's all to do her best to please him and avoid his abuse. In particular, note how edgy she is when she's preparing dinner. She knows he's angry about the towels being out of place and knows it's only a matter of time before he acts on it.
  • Say My Name: Martin screams Laura's name following her presumed death.
  • Stepford Smiler: Laura is this while married to Martin. She has to pretend to enjoy and appreciate everything he says and does, or else get beaten or otherwise abused.
  • Super Drowning Skills: Martin assumed Laura drowned during the storm because she has a fear of water ever since she was a little girl. However, she had secretly been taking swimming lessons and swam to shore during the storm.
  • Sympathetic Murderer: In the end Laura commits cold-blooded murder, but it's understandable.
  • Tranquil Fury: Martin is a cold psychopath who rarely even raises his voice, though you can see how under the calm facade he's seething with rage whenever Laura contradicts him or displeases him slightly over some trivial matter.
  • Unwitting Instigator of Doom: Laura's swim class classmate, who calls Martin to offer her condolences and ends up tipping him off to her secret life.
    • Laura's mother, who tells him where she's living and who she's dating (she's blind and thanks to him disguising his voice, she thinks she's talking to a cop who wants to help).
  • Vorpal Pillow: Martin attempts to smother Laura's mother with a pillow after finding out where Laura is and who she's dating. Luckily, a nurse walks in at that moment, stopping him.
  • Wholesome Crossdresser: Laura disguises herself as a man when visiting her mother. Good thing too, as Martin would have recognized her otherwise.
  • Wicked Cultured: Martin is obsessed with Hector Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique.
  • Would Hit a Girl: Martin frequently beats Laura when she does something that merely annoys him.
  • You Wouldn't Shoot Me: Martin is completely unafraid, at least outwardly when Laura is pointing the gun at him, not stepping back when told to.