Natural Enemies is a character study of a man contemplating the annihilation of his own family, and writer-director Jeff Kanew never allows the tiniest sliver of hope to brighten the screen. Working from a novel by Julius Horwitz, Kanew takes viewers deep into the turbulent mind of magazine editor Paul Steward (Hal Holbrook), a man so bludgeoned by the disappointments of everyday life that he views oblivion as the only gift he can bestow upon his loved ones. Had Kanew surmounted this material’s inherent narrative problems, and had he adopted a more kinetic storytelling style, Natural Enemies could have become one of the great cinematic provocations of its day, especially because leading man Holbrook commits so fully to his nihilistic characterization. Alas, those narrative problems create speed bumps at regular intervals, and Kanew’s style is far too minimalistic and static. Some scenes are so flat as to narcotize the viewer. That said, Natural Enemies is a fascinating misfire.
The picture begins on a fateful morning in suburban Connecticut, where Paul lives with his wife, Miriam (Louise Fletcher), and their three children. Thanks to several minutes of wall-to-wall voiceover, we learn that Paul is contemplating using a gun to kill his family and them himself upon returning home from work that evening. Traveling into New York, where he runs a small magazine catering to intellectuals, Paul speaks with two cerebral friends—a diplomat (José Ferrer) and a therapist (Viveca Lindfors)—and he tells both of them what he’s planning. Each expresses concern, but neither contacts authorities. Additionally, Paul realizes his final sexual fantasy by hiring five prostitutes for group sex, which leads to perhaps the strangest scene in the movie. As the prostitutes recline nude, Paul gives a monologue about the history of his marriage, up to and including descriptions of Miriam’s hospitalization for mental illness, before again revealing—this time, to five strangers—that the death of his family is imminent. The prostitutes engage in talking-and-listening therapy, offering Paul marital and sexual advice, but they, too, avoid notifying authorities. And then, once Paul gets home, Miriam says she knows what he’s going to do, which occasions a numbingly long dialogue scene that Kanew films in the least dynamic fashion possible.
By the end of Natural Enemies, some viewers might share Paul’s homicidal impulses simply because Kanew has made Paul’s life seem so dreary that escape sounds appealing. Cheap digs about Kanew’s directorial limitations aside, Natural Enemies represents a sincere attempt at digging beneath the surface of an existential malaise that afflicted millions of people during the ’70s. Furthermore, the picture makes the troubling—if not altogether persuasive—argument that a killer lurks inside each of us. Yet dismissing Natural Enemies because Kanew didn’t argue his case well is too easy. Somewhat like Peter Bogdonavich’s Targets (1968), Natural Enemies asks why America is such fertile ground for growing monsters. Incidentally, Kanew’s career took some peculiar turns after this picture. His next project was helming the low-rent actioner Eddie Macon’s Run (1983), and then he scored big with Revenge of the Nerds (1984).
Natural Enemies: FUNKY