Young, mousy and just released from a mental institution, Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal) hasn't quite shaken her dangerous hobby of self-mutilation. What she needs is a job -- her first ever -- to take her mind off her box of skin-puncturing tools and put her on the path to normalcy. How about performing clerical duties for a sadistic lawyer who demands perfectly typed letters but secretly craves a tender young booty to spank? It's her perfect gig.
In its first hour, "Secretary" seems a wicked satire of the masochism that binds office workers to their employers: Lee's boss, Edward Grey (James Spader), eyes her flesh like Dracula ogling Renfield's paper cuts. But as our heroine finds her sexual emancipation in taking swats from the old man, the film assumes a serious (and seriously absurd) pro-S&M stance it's up to the skilled leads to sell. Gyllenhaal's deep yearning buttresses the film's swiss-cheese argument that pain opens the door to real feeling, and that Lee and Edward are sharing a love that's right for them. Less daring viewers will note a parallel to the therapeutic properties of beating one's head against a wall. After all, it feels so good when you stop.