It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
"Secretary" approaches the tricky subject of sadomasochism with a stealthy tread, avoiding the dangers of making it either too offensive, or too funny. Because S/M involves postures that are absorbing for the participants but absurd to the onlooker, we tend to giggle at the wrong times. Here is a film where we giggle at the right times. The director, Steven Shainberg, has succeeded by focusing intently on his characters, making them quirky individuals rather than figures of fun.
The movie, to begin with, is well cast. There may be better actors than James Spader and Maggie Gyllenhaal, but for this material, I cannot think who they are. About Spader there always seems to be some unarticulated secret hovering, and Gyllenhaal avoids numerous opportunities to make her character seem pathetic, and makes her seem plucky instead--intent on establishing herself and making herself necessary.
Spader plays Mr. Grey, a lawyer whose office looks like the result of intense conversations with an interior designer who has seen too many Michael Douglas movies. Mr. Grey has such bad luck with secretaries that he has an illuminated help-wanted sign out front he can light up, like the "Vacancy" sign at a motel. Gyllenhaal plays Lee Holloway, who has the illness of self-mutilation and comes from a neurotic family. Released from treatment, Lee takes typing classes, goes looking for work and has an interview with Mr. Grey. Something unspoken passes between them and they know they are thinking about the same thing.
Lee is submissive. Spader is dominant and obsessive (he has a fetish for lining up red markers in his desk drawer). He demands perfection, she falls short of the mark, he punishes her, and this becomes a workable relationship. When he loses interest for a time and stops correcting her mistakes, she grows disconsolate; when he sharply calls her back into her office, she is delighted.