The most heinous crime a woman can commit is the murder of her children. Beyond the bloodcurdling fact that it involves the death of a child, the offense is the apex of "unmotherliness," a sin looming so large and vile in our culture that even far, far less grave breaches in expectation, like postpartum depression, are still met with scandalized whispers. Nothing turns opinion against you faster than not being a "good mother"—or not properly going through the motions such a role demands.
Beth B's Two Small Bodies (1993)—based on a play of the same name by Neal Bell—is an odd and uncomfortable little film that turns these truisms against its audience. Eileen Maloney (Suzy Amis) awakens one morning to discover that her two young children are missing from their bedroom, where she'd locked them the night before. Lieutenant Bramm (Fred Ward), a brutish, untactful, chain-smoking detective, is assigned to the case and immediately suspects Eileen as the murderer. Indeed, Eileen appears strangely unmoved by the absence of her children, failing to act hysterical, or even to cry, as one would anticipate. Bramm bullies Eileen to try to goad a confession, and when she doesn't crack, his tactics become cruel and misogynist, fixating on her job as a strip club hostess and taunting her for consorting with multiple romantic partners—sure signs of her moral shortcomings.
The verbal cat-and-mouse grows more heated, and the single-location setting begins to feel suffocating. Unable to convince Bramm of her innocence, Eileen relents to playing along with his fantasy of her as a "slut" who murdered her children after they walked in on her with one of her lovers. It's tempting to begin to believe the scenario in which she's indulging Bramm; while his actions grow increasingly inappropriate and violating, Eileen's emotional removal can almost seem worse.
Though the impressionistic lighting of Two Small Bodies mimics the style of contemporaneous erotic thrillers, there is nothing remotely "erotic" about its stomach-turning climax. Rather, the film is—quite radically—a portrait of an exhausted and imperfect mother, one who admits that "it was nice to get dressed in quiet" the morning before she realized her children were missing from her home. But even as Bramm's ghoulishness reaches preposterous proportions, Eileen is still the one we blame when she confesses, "I'm not completely sorry my children are dead." Only too late do we realize it wasn't Eileen that Beth B put on trial; it was us.
Two Small Bodies screens this afternoon, January 15, and on January 22, at Anthology Film Archives as part of the series “Fred Ward: Ward to the Wise.”