Do you need a twisted mind to write a twisted story? The question is perhaps the subtext whenever a reader asks a horror writer where they get their ideas from. For a certain reader, imagining the unimaginable portends a darkness within. It’s why we search for telltale signs of evil after every mass shooting.
Deadly Illusions, a psychological thriller now streaming on Netflix, treats this myth as reality. Mary Morrison, played by Kristin Davis, is a retired thriller novelist now living in domestic bliss: she has a sprawling, modern house, two children- twins, and a loving husband named Tom. It’s so idyllic, one’s surprised there’s no golden retriever running in the yard.
At the start of the film, Mary takes a meeting with her literary agent and a publishing executive during which they offer her two million dollars if she writes another thriller. The offer offends Mary. She rises to her feet in a huff and promptly escorts them off her property. Later that night, she comes across her husband Tom reading a letter. The publishing executive has slipped the offer into their mailbox in a last-ditch effort to get Mary to reconsider. Tom wants Mary to write the book. Two million is a lot of money, and they need it because Tom has made a lousy investment. This revelation forces Mary’s hand. She has to write the book. This is also when we find out why Mary is so hesitant about penning a new thriller novel. She becomes a different person, she says, when she writes.
But what does that even mean? It’s ominous, to say the least.
It’s clear the act of writing is a threat to domesticity. To allow time for Mary to write, the Morrisons hire a nanny from a fancy agency that hires out accomplished, practically Ivy League-educated young women to stimulate the next generation of elite children. It’s all very nineteenth century. And when depicted in art and literature, we know what all such governesses desire: to become the lady of the manor.
(It’s a shame some tropes never die.)
In the end, the Morrisons hire a bookish nanny named Grace. Though she is pretty and well-developed, having curvy hips and big breasts, Grace is mentally childlike. Mary takes an instant liking to her. But what is Grace’s appeal? Most likely, Grace reminds Mary of a younger version of herself as Grace wants to be a writer.
The connection, however, goes deeper than that. Mary starts having erotic encounters with Grace. It begins with bra shopping- you know, the sort of thing you do with your employer- before escalating to skinny dipping sequence and a scene of Grace masturbating Mary while she’s taking a fancy milk bath complete with floating (think vaginal) flowers. Whether any of this is actually happening is uncertain. It could all be a fantasy or just a delusion: Mary becoming a different person as she writes her thriller. Because of this, I found myself losing interest in the story. Scenes of delusions or fantasies are only interesting if we know something about the character having them. Mary, however, is a mystery hidden behind layers of upper middle class cliché. At one point, I pressed pause and was dismayed to learn there were still forty-nine minutes of the movie to get through. The fantasy sequences are too redundant and add little to the story. As a consequence, the middle of this film sags like a poorly constructed novel.
Then the fantasy morphs into nightmare. One day, Mary sees her husband and Grace having a sexual encounter in the kitchen. They are playing some BDSM game that involves Tom being blindfolded while he goes down on Grace. Soon after, Mary’s best friend, Elaine, who suspects the affair, is found murdered. This is when the narrative introduces split personality. Grace has an alter-ego called Maggie, a tough girl persona she created to shield herself after suffering from child abuse. Near the climax of the film, Maggie attacks Tom while he’s taking a shower. Mary, who has been away investigating Grace, returns home to find Tom bleeding to death in the bathroom, with his stomach slashed. Before she can call for help, Maggie attacks her. It’s not clear what Maggie/ Grace’s intentions towards Mary are; during the assault, she keeps switching personas, going back and forth between good Grace and evil Maggie personas. Anyhow, the thriller comes to a close in the usual way: Mary saves the day, and a happy family order is restored.
Interestingly, this coincides with Mary completing her manuscript.
It’s hard to interpret Deadly Illusions. Either it all happened or none of it happened. But if nothing happened, what’s the point unless the film gives us an insight into Mary’s psychology. Does split personality metaphorically reflect the author/ character divide?
Not unless you think art originates in the unconscious.
Let me know what you thought of the film in the comment below.