Harrison Ford’s public-facing persona has never been, let’s say, approachable. If he’s asked for the umpteenth time whether Han Solo or Greedo shot first, he will gladly respond with some variation of “I don’t care.” Grumpiness is as key to Ford’s image as wholesomeness is to Tom Hanks’s. Seeing Ford actually enjoy himself on a press tour, like he did during a particularly giggly interview for a British morning show promoting Blade Runner 2049, feels like happening upon a solar eclipse. Even though he’s approaching 80, Ford has always given off the vibe of a mildly annoyed grandpa.
On screen, however, Ford remains a quintessential movie star. Even when he isn’t portraying two of the most iconic characters in Hollywood (Han Solo and Indiana Jones), studios can sell a film just by putting the actor’s face front and center—think The Fugitive or Air Force One. These days, moviegoers are drawn to extensions of an expansive cinematic universe like the MCU, but in Ford’s heyday, the movie star was the main attraction. And in any era, it’s hard to find a producer of more star wattage than Ford.
Ford doesn’t appear to enjoy the relationship between audience and star when it comes to actual, in-person interactions, but on the screen, he’s always excelled when playing the part of a gruff and charming protagonist. Which is why it was disorienting, and thrilling, when the actor took on a role that completely subverted our expectations: playing a straight-up villain.
On the surface, Ford’s character in Robert Zemeckis’s Hitchcockian thriller What Lies Beneath, which turns 20 this month, fits right into his wheelhouse. As Norman Spencer, Ford is a charming, successful scientist—a man developing a new anesthetic for treating patients that currently, as a side effect, leaves them temporarily paralyzed. Is that a foreboding thing to specialize in? Perhaps, but gosh, Norman is just so in love with his wife, Claire (played by Michelle Pfeiffer), and is excited to spend more time with her after her daughter, Caitlin, goes off to college. (Claire’s first husband died and then she married Norman and moved to Vermont with him.)
But while Claire is alone in their lake house while Norman’s at the lab, she starts dealing with strange occurrences. She thinks she’s being haunted by a ghost; after seeing her neighbors have a huge fight, she suspects the husband next door has killed his wife and her spirit is trying to send a message. The murderous neighbor turns out to be a red herring—though not before an homage to Hitchcock’s Rear Window when Claire tries to spy from her bedroom—but the hauntings continue. Eventually, Claire realizes the spirit is a missing woman, Madison, a coed who disappeared about a year ago.
Claire’s suspicions that Norman might know something about the missing woman bear fruit, but he assures her that he didn’t intentionally harm Madison—they had an affair and when he tried to break things off, she committed suicide. He hid the body and her car in the lake to avoid public scrutiny and save their marriage. Claire doesn’t believe him, and wants Norman to confess to the authorities. And, well, that’s when Norman realizes his wife is a loose end who must be dealt with.
To see Ford shift into killer mode—with Norman paralyzing Claire by using his own anesthetic, no less—is legitimately terrifying. Or, at least, it was for a viewer like me, who was too young to watch What Lies Beneath when it came out in 2000 and caught it much later on cable. What Lies Beneath received a lukewarm critical reception, and some reviews at the time noted that the key twist—Ford’s character being the killer—was telegraphed in the movie’s trailer. With that foresight, it’s easy to understand why this thriller would disappoint, especially when the first half of the film spent so much time teasing the next-door neighbor as a potential killer and the spirit as a malevolent force. (In retrospect, naming Ford’s character Norman, with all the film’s Hitchcockian sensibilities, might’ve been the biggest clue of all.)
But the failure of the film’s marketing is, obviously, no fault of Ford’s, whose heel turn was an ingenious weaponization of his movie star persona and good looks. Here’s Indiana Jones, paralyzing his wife and putting her immobilized body in a bathtub to stage a suicide. You don’t see that every day—and we haven’t seen something like it since.
What Lies Beneath and Ford’s role as a villain in the film is a notable outlier in Ford’s filmography—maybe the closest antecedent was his portrayal of Bob Falfa in American Graffiti. But Falfa was one of Ford’s first roles, and even then, being a cocky hot-rodder is a far cry from playing a guy trying to kill his wife. Forget a fifth Indiana Jones movie—with all due respect to James Mangold, what’s the point if Steven Spielberg isn’t gonna direct?—what I really want to see is Ford dialing up the menace with a late-stage turn toward villainy. It might be a pitch he rarely throws, but it’s in his repertoire.
Ford’s performance in What Lies Beneath works well on repeat viewings. The way Norman is visibly uncomfortable when someone brings up his late father, who has even more accolades in the scientific community, or how he dismisses gossip of another professor getting in trouble for an affair with a student over dinner, will read as warning signs. Norman plays the part of a doting husband, but even before he chooses to stage his wife’s suicide there are traces of narcissism and entitlement. It’s just easy not to notice those things when the character is imbued with Ford’s natural charisma.
Claire, of course, narrowly avoids being killed by Norman at the end of the film—with a helpful assist from Madison’s spirit. (The actual incorporation of a supernatural entity is when What Lies Beneath strays the most from its Hitchcockian influences.) But the happier ending doesn’t take away from the impressive suspense Zemeckis generates as the curtain is peeled back and Ford gets the most sustained stretch of villainy in his storied career. And even then, it’s only at the tail end of a film; he’s strategically sidelined for most of the movie as a hardworking scientist/Wife Guy.
Ford has gifted us plenty in his career: indelible performances, iconic characters, constant reminders that he’s the rare movie star who hates fame, lessons in aviation safety. But for an actor with an endearing give-no-fucks attitude, the lack of villainous roles feels almost strategic: Like Will Smith or the aforementioned Hanks, he knows being a charming lead is a big part of his appeal and that playing against that type should be offered in rare doses. Smith and Hanks tried their hand at quasi-bad guys to underwhelming effect with Suicide Squad and The Circle, respectively, so for the very low bar of charismatic movie stars breaking bad, Ford’s turn as a killer in What Lies Beneath is a thrilling accomplishment.
But Ford can, and should, play a villain again in the future. If nothing else, it would be a welcome change of pace for a veteran actor who’s done just about everything. He’s as grumpy and craggy as he’s ever been, so being a conventional bad guy might not feel particularly abnormal. What Lies Beneath was an exciting trial run, but there’s no reason it has to be the one and only time Ford became a scary, convincing villain. And if for some reason you’re upset that I just spoiled in considerable detail the big twist of a movie that’s 20 years old, allow me to channel my best Ford and say that I don’t care.