He succeeds, in part, because of his posture. In the stiff way Rusty stands, and the emotion he doesn’t express. Rusty is so stoic, his few impassioned breaks hit like a gavel. When Barbara accuses him of still obsessing over Carolyn, even after her death, a broken Rusty cries: “It was never love. It was never love.” Through Rusty’s flashbacks to his affair with Carolyn, we learn the young female attorney held a longstanding interest in the hotshot prosecutor. She thinks Raymond might bequeath the District Attorney’s office to Rusty, thereby, putting her in line for succession. But Rusty is opposed to forcing Raymond’s hand, and Carolyn loses interest in him. Much like Richard in “Frantic,” the young woman emasculates the older Rusty. The once stoic prosecutor becomes sexually obsessed with her: He calls her home only to hang up. He begs for her affection at work. He even stalks her. She’s retapped his dormant passion. And he’s right, it’s not love. It’s a drug. And Ford plays desperate so well. With each languished plea, each puppy dog’s lament, Ford knows he’s not playing Indiana Jones. He’s more akin to the guide who betrayed him for the golden idol—willing to do whatever’s required for his trophy.
Pakula knows the power of Ford’s all-American archetype. He’s banking on it. We might, without any hesitation, believe Rusty is guilty if anyone but the bachelor from “Working Girl” played him. When Carolyn’s phone records prove Rusty’s persistent calling, we’re suspended. When the news of his fingerprints, and the fibers from his home are found at her apartment, we pause. When the blood from the crime scene matches his blood type, we fight our instincts. Pakula and Ford thrive in our hesitancy. They even twist the knife, like when Rusty and Jamie (Bradley Whitford)—part of the former’s defense team—search for evidence in Carolyn’s apartment. Jamie wonders why some crucial proof, the spermicide, isn’t present in her home. Rusty replies as though he’s the killer: “Well, you’ve got to remember, I wasn’t thinking very clearly. If I had been, I wouldn’t have left my fingerprints on the glass.” The first person obscures the boundaries between conjecture and recounting. Is Rusty merely offering a hypothetical or is he defending his actions? Ford knows this dark character isn’t Richard in “Frantic.” He’s clearly capable of murder. It’s part of the game.
During the ‘90s, Ford further established his on-screen heroes with Jack Ryan and President James Marshall. But if “Frantic” and “Presumed Innocent” offered hints of the tension wrought from Ford subverting his all-American image, then “What Lies Beneath,” a decade later, dives head first. In the Zemeckis film, Ford plays Dr. Norman Spencer, a scientist on the brink of a professional breakthrough. He occupies a picturesque seaside Vermont home with his adorable dog Cooper, his supportive wife Claire (Michelle Pfeiffer), and their college-bound daughter Caitlin (Katharine Towne). Norman and Claire, as with Ford’s other marital dynamics, on the surface, share a happy partnership. In fact, Claire literally worships her husband. She compares his brilliance to Madame Curie, and passionately caresses his pecs in bed. For his part, Norman might be the perfect husband: He’s loving, compassionate, and hardworking. The couple’s biggest issue, initially, is Claire’s empty nest syndrome, and the nagging emptiness of her life.