COULD it be that Hollywood is changing its attitude toward female characters, allowing them the kind of power and presence usually reserved for male heroes? While it's too early to proclaim a new era, two new films suggest that women are coming more solidly into their own. Both are thrillers, and at least one of them indulges in violence to a degree that poses its own hard questions. But each places a woman at the center of the action - not in a tacked-on ``helpless victim'' or ``love interest'' position that's common in American movies - and shows the heroine taking command of tough situations with an assurance that would do a traditional Hollywood hero pr oud.
``Sleeping With the Enemy'' has arrived with a lot of fanfare, mainly centering on Julia Roberts, the suddenly hot star whose ``Pretty Woman'' and ``Steel Magnolias'' are still fresh in memory. Her new picture isn't just a star vehicle, though. It also reflects the personality of its director, Joseph Ruben, who made ``The Stepfather'' a few seasons ago - a chilling and ironic story about a man who murders his family, starts a new life under a new identity, and begins the same deadly pattern all over aga in. What made that movie exceptional was not only its gripping story, but its sardonic view of the way ``family values'' has become a catch-phrase that even a family murderer can think he believes in.
``Sleeping With the Enemy'' is almost a remake of ``The Stepfather,'' right down to specific plot details. What's new about it - and revealing about Hollywood's shift in outlook regarding women - is that the story is told not from the viewpoint of the male villain, but of the female who must outdo him. That's an important difference.
Ms. Roberts plays Laura, a woman who seems to have everything her heart desires. She's wealthy, attractive, and apparently worshiped by Martin, her husband. Martin has these little quirks, though. The cans in the kitchen cupboard have to sit straight on the shelves, for instance, and the bathroom towels can't be in disarray. If his quirks are not indulged, he may turn violent. Life isn't a dream for Laura, we discover, it's a nightmare. So she plans an escape, starts life over again, and even falls in l ove, continually dreading that her abandoned husband will find her and take his revenge.
If you saw ``The Stepfather,'' you'll remember it as Laura works out certain details of her plan, and you may guess an important plot twist during the climax. It's too bad ``Sleeping With the Enemy'' doesn't have the surprise of the movie that inspired it, and that it shares an unfortunate flaw of the earlier film: The finale is just a burst of movie-style violence, not as clever as the events leading up to it, and suggests that a dose of Martin's own nasty medicine (rather than a true moral victory) is what's needed to set things right.
This aside, ``Sleeping With the Enemy'' deserves credit for sharp performances and tight, colorful filmmaking on a theme that needs attention from the media. Domestic violence is a serious problem in American life, and Mr. Ruben not only builds full sympathy for the victim, but shows her taking control and doing something about it.
`THE Silence of the Lambs,'' directed by Jonathan Demme, features Jodie Foster in a role that's still more heroic. She plays a young FBI trainee named Clarice, assigned by her male supervisor to track down a serial killer who's outsmarted every man in the movie. Along the way she encounters more horrors than most pictures throw at their protagonists - or audiences - but she's portrayed as a strong personality capable of standing up to whatever abuse the world may inflict on her. This isn't unprecedented . ``Coma'' with Genevieve Bujold is another example. But it's rare.
Apart from Ms. Foster's performance, ``The Silence of the Lambs'' also stands out for a more questionable reason: Its visual shocks are extreme enough to stretch the R rating to its breaking point, as Clarice finds herself dealing with two psychotic men who mutilate and kill their victims.
This may seem surprising from filmmaker Demme, who has dealt with violence in ``Something Wild,'' for instance, but has a broad humanistic streak, and believes in the essential good of human nature. Why has he injected such disturbing scenes into his new picture?
There are a number of reasons, I think. For one, the physical and emotional violence reflects his view that if a movie does include mayhem, it shouldn't be the fun mayhem that so many films peddle, but should make us feel how hurtful and destructive violence really is. For another, Mr. Demme wants to show his heroine standing up to the worst imaginable menace, proving her as bold and courageous as any male character around. Demme also makes it clear that his villains' evil behavior is rooted in abuse th ey suffered as children, thus using his story to make a cautionary point about an urgent social issue.
Although some of its details are gruesome enough to put ``The Silence of the Lambs'' off limits for many moviegoers, its performances are stunning, especially when Anthony Hopkins is present as Clarice's dangerously demented mentor. Demme's filmmaking is at its peak, too, generating powerful suspense and building an intelligent subplot about the centrality of vision in our lives, and the way appearances (including false or illusory ones) can shape our ideas and behavior. ``The Silence of the Lambs'' has appalling moments, but there's a thoughtfulness to it that helps offset the horrors it portrays.