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'Hush' audiences can't keep their mouths shut

"Hush little baby, don't say a word . . ."

This quiet little lullaby describes a mother's undying devotion to her child and the extremes she is willing to go in order to satisfy his every delight. Jonathan Darby's directorial debut, the recently released film Hush, takes motherly dedication to a new level in the story of a woman who can't bear to be replaced in her son's affections.

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The suspense, sarcasm and setting of the movie are surprisingly realistic – but can you really imagine Gywneth Paltrow pregnant? Never have I been to a movie where the audience gasped in disbelief over such a stretch of the imagination. And never could Gywneth, in her delicate condition, still fit into those jeans. This was not the only thing that elicited responses from the audience. The attention grabbers from a brutal mugging to dead rat carcasses falling from the ceiling and a grandmother's biting sarcasm in a sauna are prone to evoke an intense reaction. Hey, I was jumping into the seat of the elderly man next to me. (Bloody rats are one thing, but grannyisms are another.)

Jessica Lange stars as Martha Baring, a southern matriarch trying to entice her grownup son back to the ranch where he was raised. Jackson (Johnathon Schaech) is a definite victim of good breeding – refined, successful and everyone's heartthrob. It's no wonder that a young beauty like Helen (Gywneth Paltrow) would fall hard for him. The problems arise when the dutiful son brings his little girlfriend home to meet Mommie Dearest.

Helen is awestruck by the idyllic setting of Kilronan, a dilapidated but beautiful horse farm in Kentucky. The wheels are obviously turning in Helen's fragile, blonde head as she imagines herself mistress of Kilronan with a swarm of children and fresh air to breathe. Little does she know that her quaint dream will soon become a nightmare. When Helen becomes pregnant, we discover that her mother-in-law is obsessed with the heir-to-be. Martha has some serious instability problems when it comes to competing for her son's affection. When it comes to the possession of her unborn grandson, she gets downright loony.

Hush is actually a quasi-realistic portrayal of a southern, aristocratic family gone bad. From Helen's first encounter with her soon-to-be mother-in-law, skeletons come tumbling out of the closet. Helen's little birdie comes in the guise of Jackson's grandmother, Alice Baring (Nina Foch), the mother of his deceased father. Underneath her genteel, southern manners lies a catty, sarcastic hellion just waiting to air Martha's dirty laundry.

Martha, however, doesn't take kindly to this intrusion. The ensuing confrontation in which Martha demands that Alice admit to the "lies she's been telling" takes place in a swanky home for the elderly, complete with terrace gardens and full spa.

From under her steam treatment, Alice suavely replies, "I am answering you. You just can't see my finger." I heard more catcalls and applause from the movie audience after this exchange than from the audience of Jerry Springer's Too Hot For TV.

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As a suspense thriller, Hush throws out foreshadowing like dead flowers. Its menacing undercurrents almost undermine the actual events. The plot verges on the predictable until the twisted ending.

Symbolic images dominate the character's interactions. The mother's obsession with her son's unborn child is reflected in the fact that she also breeds champion racehorses. Coincidence? I think not.

The isolated southern locale facilitates a great deal of Martha's menacing actions. Where else would you find deadly farming instruments, Ford Explorers roaring through the mud and a doctor who actually allows a young mother to give birth at home sans drugs?

The very concepts of the danger involved are southern – I know from experience. The only way to separate an irate mother from her skillet or her nail-pullers is to reveal her sordid love affair with the local horse wrangler. But it gets better than that.

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First time director Darby films the sweeping setting of Kilronan beautifully. A perpetual, luminous haze hangs over the Kentucky bluegrass and the wedding of Jackson and Helen comes right out of Martha Stewart Living.

The rolling hills of the horse pastures add to the feel of isolation. The majestic manor house dominates the open farmland like a modern day Tara. The energy charged setting of the horse racing circuit parallels the intense emotion of the Baring family situation.

The glistening, muscular horses, bursting from the starting gate at Churchill Downs symbolizes the power of the aristocratic family and the unbridled danger that comes with it. The horse-racing society, with its grandeur and wealth makes a colorful and elegant backdrop for many of the integral scenes.

Schaech and Paltrow display a dynamic chemistry in their scenes together. Paltrow's seeming innocence and eventual burst of strength is nicely offset by his darker looks and haunted past and Schaech portrays his character as a boy on the brink of manhood, still indulgent of his mother, but beginning to show signs of independence.

Jessica Lange is brilliant as the psychotic Martha. She has grace and refinement, not to mention amazing beauty she has sustained over the years. She portrays Martha as charming when need be, playing her looks like a fine tuned instrument to manipulate those around her.

Hush is an all around crowd-pleaser. This perfect spring break flick, replete with gorgeous actors, splendid cinematography and nail biting action is certainly more entertaining than watching that boat sink again.

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