Friday, April 20, 2012

Director Spotlight #6.18: Brian De Palma's Raising Cain

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. April’s director is the self-proclaimed master of the macabre, Brian De Palma.

Grade: 66 (B)

What do you do after you’ve made the worst film of your career? If you’re Brian De Palma, you retreat back into psychological thriller territory. 1992’s Raising Cain wasn’t going to have the mass appeal of Dressed to Kill, however. It has an utterly ridiculous plot, it’s highly self-referential, and it has film references out the wazoo. There is absolutely no way someone who isn’t already a hardcore De Palma nut will enjoy this; casual fans need not apply. Even for one of his films, this thing is fucking loopy. But for all the loopyness, there’s plenty of entertainment.

Carter Nix (John Lithgow) is a child psychologist who studies his own daughter obsessively. Carter needs children for his latest experiment, but obviously there aren’t too many mothers willing to give up their children. Carter is too meek and weak-willed to take what he wants, but his sociopathic split-personality “twin” Cain (Lithgow again) is more than willing to do the dirty work and bring the children to their “father” Dr. Nix (Lithgow again). When Carter discovers that his wife Jenny (Lolita Davidovich) is having an affair with widower Jack Dante (Steven Bauer), Carter and Cain plot to kill Jenny and frame Jack for her murder and the murders of several other mothers. But this only gives some hint as to how twisted Carter’s mind really is.

De Palma is in classic De Palma mode here- there’s extended wordless scenes set to thrilling music (by frequent collaborator Pino Donaggio, no less). There’s graphic violence that falls somewhere between enthralling and repulsive. There’s an exploration of where sexuality and violence coalesces. De Palma makes heavy use of crane shots to bring us into Carter’s world, fluid pans to show shifts in personality, and long tracking shots to make exposition scenes more dynamic. Whenever Carter’s absurd situation is explained, there’s a split diopter to show both the person explaining and the frequently bemused reactions.

Of course, because it’s a De Palma movie, voyeurism plays heavily into the action. Carter/Cain/Dr. Nix’s experiments involve creepy, highly observational studies of children. As it often is in De Palma’s films, who sees who doing what has catastrophic effect on what’s happening. When Carter/Cain notices a pair of joggers passing by, he has to act fast in order to keep his most recent murder from looking sinister. When the film comes to the frightening climax, what Jenny or Jack sees or doesn’t see determines whether someone lives or dies, and there’s a feeling of helplessness as the voyeur (character or audience) sees an innocent person in danger.

Raising Cain doesn’t work quite as well as a number of De Palma’s earlier thrillers- De Palma pulls the rug out from the audience so often in the early going with a series of increasingly irritating dream sequences that it’s easy to get turned off. De Palma uses clumsy, badly delivered narration from Davidovitch’s character in the middle of the film to get into her head; it’s the exact thing he chose not to do with Angie Dickinson’s phenomenal, often wordless performance in Dressed to Kill. It’s difficult to tell whether De Palma’s using these techniques in earnest (questionable) or using them as a way of mocking the modern horror movie (highly possible), but it doesn’t really work any which way. It’s doubly disappointing that most of the supporting cast is either wasted (Bauer) or lousy (Davidovitch), and that most of the non-Lithgow roles are pretty unmemorable. Part of the strength of most of De Palma’s thrillers was the wealth of memorable characters, even in the smallest roles.

The film works where it most matters, however, in Lithgow’s unhinged performance (or rather, performances). However ridiculous the plot is, Lithgow runs with it, and he’s clearly having a blast playing every role- the damaged Carter, the decidedly nasty Cain (hilariously always smoking, drinking, or wearing sunglasses), the cold, comically evil Dr. Dix, a scared little boy named Josh, or a creepy maternal figure named Margo. Within seconds, it’s clear which personality we’re watching, and that clarity helps add to the fun.

Above all else, Raising Cain has film on the brain. De Palma’s films frequently double as film criticism, but Raising Cain comments on De Palma’s influences as well as his own films. The split-personalities and cross-dressing killer bit reference not only to Hitchcock’s Psycho, but De Palma’s own Dressed to Kill. The creepy child care references Psycho, Sisters, and Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (complete with a creepily accented abusive father). The bogus psychology is a play on Psycho, Dressed to Kill, Sisters, and Body Double. A famous line form Alexander Mackendrick’s Sweet Smell of Success (“the cat’s in the bag and the bag’s in the river”) shows up several times. Donaggio’s score seems to “quote” previous De Palma films. Several scenes are taken wholesale from Psycho and De Palma’s previous films that a non-fan might make a case for creative bankruptcy.

But the title Raising Cain, taken from a book by critic/De Palma defender Pauline Kael, ought to tip-off everyone where De Palma’s head is at. This is a film for the film obsessed, for those who don’t mind being jerked around, and for De Palma die-hards. It might not have the same depth or emotional power as the similarly film-centric Dressed to Kill or Blow Out, but it does have a final set-piece where John Lithgow attacks “himself”. That’s more than enough to recommend it.

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