Tagged Psychological Thriller

Raising Cain: There’s Better De Palma and There’s Worse

Raising Cain. 1992. Directed & Written by Brian De Palma.
Starring John Lithgow, Lolita Davidovich, Steven Bauer, Frances Sternhagen, Gregg Henry, Tom Bower, Mel Harris, Teri Austin, & Gabrielle Carteris. Pacific Western.
Rated R. 91 minutes.
Crime/Drama/Thriller

★★★
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Brian De Palma is one of those classic directors of his generation, leaving his mark indelibly on the psychothriller, often imitating his greatest influence Alfred Hitchcock, though never in a way that rips off the master. Instead he is keen on homage, and uses the influence as an element incorporated into his overall style as a director and writer. He’s honestly not one of my personal top favourites. He is undeniably great, all the same. I do love CarrieSistersCarlito’s WayMission: Impossible, but don’t care for some of his more lauded works such as the cult phenomenon Scarface and The Untouchables, other than bits and pieces; they’re good movies, just not fantastic as others claim. I prefer the stuff like Dressed to Kill and Blow Out.
Raising Cain is a nice heady mix of psychological horror, mystery, and all folded into a thriller structure. While this is another film that doesn’t go on my top De Palma, it is fun. Almost in a seedy way. He’s tread through the sleazy, sexy-styled thriller before and isn’t a stranger to that territory. Here, it doesn’t feel as Hitchcockian. Instead the plot comes off more trashy than anything and not in a way that’s beneficial, in say the sense of a grindhouse picture or something purposefully attempting to feel like that. De Palma tries to make another solid thriller that twists and turns, but instead of doing much twisting or turning he opts for a load of nasty business, some steamy bits. Ultimately, the screenplay gets lost in its own convoluted attempts at becoming greater. I wanted to love this and only came out lukewarm even about its best bits.
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There’s no doubt John Lithgow is a wildly underrated character actor. Although he knocked the role out of the park, 3rd Rock from the Sun never did him any good, or justice. He’s been in plenty of movies since, but I can’t help feel that series put a damper on his career at a later stage, whereas someone like Joseph Gordon-Levitt was young enough to shake it off. And that’s sad. Lithgow is at his best here, taking on a Peter Sellers-like task of multiple roles. Except these are twisted, each more sinister and unsettling than the last. All juxtaposed with the main character, Carter Nix, whose nice and friendly qualities are what you’d imagine Lithgow is probably like in real life. He does well portraying the Multiple Personality Disorder at the heart of the main character. There’s a genuine disconnect between the different perspectives, the different looks and their ways of speaking, and so instead of feeling like he’s just hopping from costume to costume, Lithgow legitimately gives us separate, distinct personalities. Right down to the voices and their idiosyncrasies. All the marks of a classic performance.
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This brings me to a point I don’t exactly enjoy about the screenplay. The whole Multiple Personality Disorder angle is fine, no problem. What boggles my mind is why there’s so much going on. There’s already a large split in the main personality of Carter, so what I’m not sure of is why De Palma insisted on involving such an intricate plot of Jenny Nix (Lolita Davidovich) cheating? Why does that have to be shuffled in there? Only clogs things up. It’s enough to have his wife suspicious of him and his complete obsession with the mental development of their daughter. A little too much to throw in a whole angle with infidelity, especially considering the movie’s only 91 minutes. Not that it’s badly written. Poorly, yes, but not bad. There’s simply too much going on for De Palma to properly juggle.
Partly it’s the end that makes me feel as if, in this film, De Palma goes too hard into his Hitchcock influence. With the whole female personality of Carter, a.k.a Margo, there’s almost too much Norman Bates lurking; in turn, we could say he’s riffing on Robert Bloch, as well. The timing of having this part of the personality come out feels too much like the climactic chills of Psycho for it to be any bit genius in its own right.
There are some real excellent scenes. Such as the simple yet effectively fun tracking shot following Lieutenant Terri (Gregg Henry), Sergeant Cally (Tom Bower) and Dr. Waldheim (Frances Sternhagen) – not only is it beautiful, the Waldheim character is strong, as well as funny in the way she walks on talking, not paying attention where they’re going, only to be lead around forcefully by the lawmen while they trail behind listening. That’s just unbelievably good writing, and without being a major part of the plot or anything of the sort it adds a big boost to the movie. These are the portions in which De Palma’s talent shines. He doesn’t just write weaving plots, he’s capable of doing good things both big and small.
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Raising Cain has all the potential to be endlessly interesting. There’s no shortage of thrill, even a chill or two from time to time. John Lithgow is perfect in his multiple roles, bringing to light Multiple Personality Disorder in fine psychological horror fashion. This is a wild, sleaze-filled ride straight off the top until the last frame. Brian De Palma can and has done better as writer-director. His abilities as a next generation Hitchcock are usually on display. This movie tries to aim for that sort of feel, but falls short. I wanted so badly for this to break free of its chains. Unfortunately, De Palma tries doing too much at once. Instead of sticking to something more basic while serving better the thriller aspects of the Multiple Personality Disorder, he goes wide and throws in a kind of Hitchcock-type plot to make things move quickly. I can’t help thinking this would have been better served as a slower burning plot, one without the infidelity of the wife and focused solely on Carter. It doesn’t need so many bells and whistles. It was good enough on its own. Luckily for all Lithgow makes this enjoyable, keeping each eye glued until the underwhelming finale that’s both too similar to a classic of the horror genre and also slightly too predictable for its own good.

Beauty in the Breakdown: Alex Ross Perry’s Perfectly Uncomfortable Queen of Earth

Queen of Earth. 2015. Directed & Written by Alex Ross Perry.
Starring Elisabeth Moss, Katherine Waterston, Patrick Fugit, Kentucker Audley, Keith Poulson, and Kate Lyn Sheil. Washington Square Films.
Unrated. 90 minutes.
Drama/Thriller

★★★★★
queen_of_earth_ver2_xlgOpening with such a tightly framed shot of Elisabeth Moss’ Catherine, Alex Ross Perry completely submerges us immediately into her world. Not to mention she’s in an absolute state of disarray and her temper is flaring, her makeup smeared and running. There are plenty of tight close-ups on Catherine moving on through the film, but it’s this almost shocking, jarring opener of her face, in our face, vulnerable and weeping, angry, emotional, which sets the tone of the film. Furthermore, I love how Perry has the title card come up in a hot pink colouring, as it sort of gives things an interesting little twist – as if everything’s fine on top, the pink like the makeup, yet underneath things are wrecked. A nice start to an oddly beautiful film.
From there, Queen of Earth descends into a spiral of broken friendship, jealousy, treacherous relationships, and a general atmosphere of dread and madness. For a movie that isn’t horror, it’s awfully scary. A lot of filmgoers seem to see this is as partly a comedy, though, for the life of me I cannot figure that one out. There’s nothing funny to me here. Not even in the darkly comic sense, which is the type of comedy I personally love most. Mostly this is full of terrifying reality, perched upon two vastly different but equally impressive performances from Elisabeth Moss and Katherine Waterston. Above all else Perry crafted an excellent and classic style thriller out of a mess of emotions and psychological torment.
10293697.0A big problem I have is that I see so many people online bashing this movie because, supposedly, nothing happens. First of all, it troubles me how many of these same people also admitted they’d pirated it. So right away, I honestly have no regard for that opinion; you stole it, didn’t enjoy it, well fuck off. Honestly, if you can’t shell out a couple bucks to watch a movie online as opposed to going to theatre, which yes is damn expensive these days, well why should I care what your opinion is? It’s the same as if you start to heed the opinions of people who don’t actually pay to go to art galleries but rather they look at Polaroids of the artwork and then critique it. Regardless of what you thought about this film, a lot of people worked on it, just as you work at your job, and then people go ahead and pirate that hard work, giving nothing back, what does that say? It’s sad, whatever it says.
Secondly, I have to say that it’s fine if you don’t dig this type of film – the quiet, slow burning style that’s more focused on dialogue and character than action, whether big or small. Queen of Earth is more like a play, as we’re focused mainly on two characters – a couple others sort of in the wings in smaller supporting roles – and the bulk of the plot takes place in a single claustrophobic type of location. That’s part of what I love, as those who say “nothing happens” are SO WRONG. You really think nothing at all happens? Maybe you didn’t listen to all the fascinating dialogue between Elisabeth Moss and Katherine Waterston, or did you miss all the palpable tension going on during scenes with Moss and Patrick Fugit? I don’t know. Might do well with seeing the film again. Because for me, a ton happens in this movie and the plot pops right out of the frame, grips ahold of your neck, and refuses to let go until the very last shot. A movie doesn’t have to have a ton of action – by action, I don’t solely mean car crashes and explosions, I mean action as in big sequences – and I think Alex Ross Perry knows that, more than well. I’ve not actually seen any of his other films, but now I’m determined to go back and watch them. They’re surely not all like this, as there’s a genuine air of old school psychological thriller throughout Queen of Earth, but it’s obvious in this one film alone he knows how to focus in on character, as well as relationships between characters, and how to draw out the tension in normal, everyday type situations; so much of that happens here from beginning to end.
IMG_1976I’ll get to Elisabeth Moss and her performance as Catherine afterwards. I’d like to talk about Virginia to begin; the character wonderfully played by Katherine Waterston. While clearly, painfully obvious that Catherine has some deep issues, it seems to me certain filmgoers are ignoring altogether how damaged Virginia is in her own right. Starting out early on, within the first 15 minutes, there’s a flashback scene between Virginia and Catherine, the latter with her saccharinely sweet boyfriend James (Kentucker Audley) around – they talk about codependency, needing the other person in a relationship and what would happen if there was a breakup, et cetera. This is very telling. What we come to see is that not only does Catherine seem to be highly codependent
One way we can see the already glaringly obvious parallel in the situations of Catherine and Virginia is the boyfriends. Though the Kentucker Audley and Patrick Fugit characters are vastly different, the obviousness lies in the women themselves. They’re like a figurative tennis match, each of them batting the ball with equal force, mirroring the charge of the other. For instance, at the beginning we see James (Audley) calling Virginia ‘Ginny’, which she continually says is what close friends call her and advises him not to; not long after, James again calls her Ginny, she once more chastises him for it. A year later, once the situations have been reversed, Rich (Fugit) does the exact same thing to Catherine that James did – he calls her ‘Kay’, over and over despite the fact she tells him not to. What’s most interesting is that it’s not something initiated by either of the women, it’s something springing organically from these people, as if Catherine and Virginia are somehow willing it out of the universe.
Or is it? I also wonder if Virginia provoked Rich into taunting Catherine with the ‘Kay’ nickname in retaliation for how she perceived her friend to have treated her that year before. Because something strikes me as highly childish about Virginia. Each of these women are somewhat spoiled in terms of money – both of them have/had parents you’d most likely classify as rich – and so I think they’ve got their individual tendencies. But what’s telling in terms of why I think Virginia is especially childish is a scene where she and her boyfriend Rich (Fugit) are laughing in their room – when Catherine comes up quietly towards the door, Virginia won’t look at her and Rich goes to the door, without a word, closing it in Catherine’s face. Virginia and Rich giggle behind the door like two children, as Catherine stands for a moment outside, hurt, confused, then walks away. I thought this moment spoke VOLUMES in regards to Virginia particularly.
Because essentially, we’re seeing a back and forth duel between these two, supposedly, best friends who wound one another like a violently psychological and emotionally unstable game of tag. Instead of standing together, they fall harder and harder apart as the scant 90 minute runtime of Queen of Earth rolls on. This relationship is what sets up so much of the incredible tension within. Bottom line it comes down to the fact these two women are more interested in boosting their own egos than helping each other, neither wanting to be the bigger person and instead tearing their friend apart even worse at the seams.
IMG_1974 IMG_1973 IMG_1975Not only is the perpetually depressed and anxious character of Catherine written well by Perry, the way in which Elisabeth Moss inhabits the character is out of this world. I’m not a fan of Mad Men. However, after I saw Moss in Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake, I became really impressed with her abilities as an actor. She has this very quiet and subtle presence about her, yet there are scenes where she has the ability to take hold of everything near, hauling the scenes down around her and just scorching the earth; I mean this, if it’s not clear, in a hugely positive way. I’ll say it: my top favourite performance of 2015. There is no doubt about it. Starting at the first frame, closed in tight on her weepy, angry face, I was utterly taken with Moss and her portrayal of Catherine. There’s a feeling going into this film you might be expecting something big, loud, brash, yet she surprises by keeping things low-key. Still, there is always a gripping sense of tone when she’s onscreen, whether she is being emotionally intense or quiet and withdrawn. I do love Waterston in this movie. There’s simply an undeniably awesome quality to Moss and her performance, throughout every last scene; not once did I find myself watching her and wanting more, or feeling there ought to be less, rather I continually felt impressed with everything she did.
IMG_1977The score from Keegan DeWitt lays just beneath the surface, like a thin layer of skin beneath the outer edges. At times the pieces are genuinely unsettling, others it’s like a swell is happening and at any moment things might burst, shattering the world in Queen of Earth to pieces. Most of all, the music fits so well in every scene of the film. For me, it’s DeWitt who adds so much of the uneasiness and terrible feeling inherent in the atmosphere of the film, he gives the screenplay and Perry’s direction a dream-like and also nightmarish quality. It’s amazing, really. Even in one scene as Virginia is out running, faded into a scene of Catherine generally not taking care of herself (eating crackers/chips and drinking pop in the morning), there’s a haunting piece with a flute riff on top of some electronic style sounds which sucks you into a weird state and kind of sticks to your skin a while. Great, great score. I think my favourite bits are the extremely foreboding pieces – you’ll know which ones – full of the horns and low woodwinds, then undercut with these deep and growling electronic rumbles.
Music and cinematography can go together hand in hand as lovers if the work is done correctly. Queen of Earth has that with DeWitt’s compositions pairing together with the camerawork of Sean Price Williams. One thing I love in terms of Williams’ cinematography here is how the close-ups really pull the viewer directly into this world. In particular, there’s a great scene with Catherine and Virginia where they’re recounting past relationships, bad ones, and there’s this great profile-like set of shots of the two talking, listening; reminds me very much of an Ingmar Bergman film at times, honestly. These perfect shots, peppered everywhere throughout the film, make the emotional and psychological weight of the screenplay resonate long and wide. Without such gorgeous looking visuals, I don’t think the film would have near as much depth, so I’m glad the look of the movie fits so well with the screenplay and its themes.
IMG_1979One of the 5 star films of 2015 and one of my favourites. It’s hard to talk about Queen of Earth without giving away the ending, even though some will still bark “nothing happens”. To them I say, go watch something else. Lots happens, it’s just not full of big sequences where a ton of characters are jumping about, each spewing expository dialogue to further the story. Instead, Alex Ross Perry’s latest film is a deeply unnerving and raw snapshot of the nervous breakdown of one woman, as well as the breakdown of a long relationship between two old friends, accompanied by an astounding score composed by Keegan DeWitt and the lush visuals of Sean Price Williams.
If you’re not into slowly paced pieces of film with all its focus centred on character and emotionality, then I suggest to not even bother. Really. Because if not, you’re only going to find yourself bored. However, if you can handle a slower pace for 90 minutes, and you’re able to sit through the brutish reality of two friends falling to pieces, one far worse than the other, then this is for you! It can get tough to watch at times if you let the plot and story sink into you, but the rewards are well worth the effort. This film brought me back to some of Bergman’s work, even one of my favourite movies of all time Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, and yet it’s a completely separate and unique masterpiece all on its own.
The ending has stuck with me. Even the entire final half hour is UNBELIEVABLE and at times intensely creepy, as well; that whole party sequence calls back to Polanski in a way which left me jaw dropped for a second or two. The last two shots, switching between an astounded Virginia and a scarily ecstatic, laughing Catherine, they’ve still not washed off me. I watched Queen of Earth, after picking it up through iTunes, twice in the matter of about 12 hours. Each time I was floored beyond belief and those final moments will not find their way out of my head.

ENEMY is a Beautiful, Dark Mindfuck

Enemy. 2014. Dir. Denis Villeneuve.
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Mélanie Laurent, Sarah Gadon, and Isabella Rossellini. E1 Films. Rated R. 90 minutes. Mystery/Thriller

★★★★★ (Movie)
★★★★ (Blu ray release)

enemy-poster03I won’t waste any time really describing the plot of Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy, which is in part based on the novel The Double by José Saramago. You can easily get the quick description from any site like IMDB, or somewhere else of that nature. What I want to talk about is my take on what actually happens in the film. So, with that being said, if you’ve not yet seen this you’ll probably want to avoid the remainder of my review.

Early on, Adam Bell (Jake Gyllenhaal), a history professor at some college, gives lectures pertaining to totalitarian regimes. I think this leads into one of the larger themes of the film. While some think the movie is an analogy of how it is to live under a totalitarian regime, maybe unknowingly. However, I think this is ultimately about the totalitarian in all of us. What I mean is that I believe Adam Bell and Anthony Claire – his double – are truly one person. I think this movie speaks to how we are often dictators of ourselves.
In this sense, Adam is both himself, a history professor, and Anthony, or Daniel Saint Claire the background actor in lesser known films.
One of the instances I think that points to this is when Adam meets with his mother (the consistently interesting and lovely Isabella Rossellini) – he tells her about this possible double, which she of course pretty much laughs off. Afterwards, though, she tells him: “I think you should quit that fantasy being a third-rate movie actor“. The statement throws Adam off. It’s worth mentioning that just before this his mother serves blueberries for dessert. Adam tells her he doesn’t like blueberries, but she reassures him “of course” he does, and they’re good for him – this directly relates to when we see Anthony earlier before his meeting with Adam, when he arrives home looking for blueberries and his pregnant wife (Sarah Gadon) forgot to get the ones he wanted. I believe this is one tell-tale sign Villeneuve is exploring the duality of one person.
enemy06There are most certainly instances in Enemy that cannot truly be reconciled into one neat little package for explanation. On the other hand, I do believe there’s one overall theme that protrudes from the film – the struggle of certain men to overcome their desire and draw towards infidelity. I am almost certain the spider imagery here is also closely paralleled with the idea of women. For instance, the very end – and once again, TURN BACK if you have not see this film to the end!
enemy05At the close of the film, Anthony has died in a car accident along with Adam’s girlfriend Mary (Mélanie Laurent) after a switch between the two identical men goes awry. After this, Adam is seem continuing on, seemingly, happily with a pregnant Helen. He receives an envelope in the mail containing a smaller black envelope; inside, a key. This is harkens back to an awkward encounter Adam has in the elevator with a man, thinking he is Anthony, talking about some place they went together, rambling about new keys, and so on. All of this plays to the beginning where Anthony is seen at the weird sex club with the women and the spider – all that. Adam then says he may have to go out later that night, but receives no response from Helen. When he goes into the room to find her, Adam only finds a massive black spider huddling up, as if scared, in the room instead. He doesn’t really look scared so much, as he almost seems to have expected to see it there sooner or later.
enemy07I believe this is a huge key. Right there, Adam comes face to face once more with the infidelity inside him – the feelings Anthony represented. Adam had no desire to have sex with Helen in the beginning. It was only due to Anthony’s aggressive behaviour Adam ever agreed to switch places for the night; Anthony was the one who wanted to get away from his pregnant wife and be a single man again for a night, even if it meant pretending to be Adam. Once Anthony’s crazy behaviour goes over the top, it leads to him and Mary being killed in the car crash – this is Adam effectively killing off the side of him which strives to cheat on his wife. In reality, Adam and Helen are together, and the parts of the film involving Anthony and Mary are almost like the struggle involving his feelings of infidelity going on in his mind. You can see a real change start to happen particularly once Adam lays down in bed with Helen for the first time – I think this scene unlocks a lot of things.
These ideas also tie into the moments where we see the ominous spider stalking through the Toronto skyscrapers. Furthermore, the woman in the beginning about to crush the spider with her heel is sort of a representation of a woman being the answer to Adam’s search – the woman is literally going to crush the spider, the infidelity, underneath her boot. At the end of the film, Adam sees the giant spider in that room and we can see how he may have thought the thoughts of infidelity were killed off with Anthony – however, they were simply relegated to a room in his mind – because it’s clear the city itself is a sort of lifelike, realized world representative of Adam’s overall mind. Even some of the cover art points to this fact. I think, for me, this is one of the best explanations of the film. It works for my viewing. Maybe not for that of others.

1015996-rodeo-fx-enhances-villeneuve-s-enemyThis is by far one of the best films I’ve seen in the past decade or so. I love a movie which not only has what can be taken as a definitive meaning behind all the imagery, but also likes to play with the imagery in a way that can shock us, or push us to interpret, reinterpret, and so on. Villeneuve does a great job of weaving a fantastic tale here. He certainly leaves a lot to the imagination. I’m not saying my opinion on the meaning of this film is a definitive answer at all – there are many other great views on what Enemy truly means, and I think some of those are excellent, as well as very viable options as to a concrete theory. I happen to think mine, which is shared by plenty of others before me, is just one of the most interesting ways to look at the film. It’s a great one, and on the top of my 2014 releases – this didn’t make it out until last year here, even though it was screened plenty in the latter half of 2013. So please, check it out.
The Blu ray is also fantastic – there are a few special features you can dig into, including interviews with all involved. Wonderful picture and sound. Highly recommend this release. Denis Villeneuve is one of the best Canadian filmmakers ever to grace us with his presence. I can’t wait to see what he does in the future.