This is considered one of De Palma’s lesser efforts, and as I recall, it was a huge flop when it came out. I saw it quite a few years ago, and remember thinking it was a real stinker, but I wanted to re-evaluate it since I have since become a much bigger admirer of De Palma than I was back then. Imagine my delighted surprise to discover that it is AWESOME!
This movie is pure De Palma, in that it doesn’t make a lot of sense as a story, but is constructed as a sheer playground for De Palma to unleash all of his trademark suspense techniques and standard writing devices. It’s in the line of his earlier movies, like Sisters or Obsession, and later like the underrated Femme Fatale, which I need to see again, RIGHT NOW.
The movie opens with a typically interesting credits sequence showing John Lithgow as Carter creepily in bed with his daughter on a video screen. Then we get Carter picking up his daughter and accepting a ride from another woman with a small kid. They take a car ride in which Carter reveals a lot of exposition: his father was an esteemed though controversial child psychology specialist, who opened a clinic in Finland that many consider creepy. Throughout the movie Carter will go about collecting children, presumably to go to this clinic. When the mother [who is really cute, I have to find out who she is] balks, Carter drugs her. Then follows a fantastic classic De Palma sequence in which Carter has this unconscious woman in his car, two curious joggers are coming down the street, and the kids in the back seat are waking up. Then Carter’s brother Cain shows up.
It is pretty clear from the start that Cain [also played by Lithgow] is Carter’s other personality, the one capable of doing bad things. Cain takes the body and gets rid of it, bringing the kid to his father [Lithgow again], who everyone thinks is dead, but who is hanging out in this roadside hotel.
By this time one has noticed the fantastic cinematography. The hotel exterior is photographed with brilliant colors, the interior of Carter’s garage is a wonderful arrangement of sunlit surfaces, and the hotel room where Carter’s father is has an amazing geometry to light and shadow, and is shot in such a way to emphasize the harsh angles created by the ceiling and lights. Part of the joy of these De Palma movies that don’t really make sense is that they allow a more pure concentration on technique, and in this regard this movie is sheer pleasure all the way through.
Anyway, so Cain goes back to sleep and Carter comes out again. Somewhere in there, we have been introduced to Carter’s wife, played by Lolita Davidovich. In another excellent sequence, she meets a former lover in a clock store. There is a flashback to how she and this guy met; she was a nurse, and his wife was critically ill. Lolita comforted him, and eventually they find themselves in a clinch with the ill wife laying right there. What happens next is a superb suspense sequence involving a reflection in a television screen, and it’s AMAZING!
About this time one has noticed that this film is unusual in that at around 20 minutes we leave Carter and take Lolita as our main character. There are a bunch of wonderful suspense sequences, too many to write about each one. We follow Lolita’s story, and soon the two of them come together. They do this in a brilliant [I’m running out of laudatory adjectives here] sequence of what seems like dreams on Lolita’s part. What they are, we later realize, are jumps in time, and we later go back and finish these scenes from Carter/Cain’s perspective.
It goes on. There is an explicit homage to Psycho, and soon after a repetition of the “shoes” trick from Dressed To Kill. I remember critics at the time dismissing De Palma at this period as recycling his masters and recycling himself because of these scenes. It didn’t bother me, but the Dressed To Kill one was a bit too much in the “we’ve seen this before” vein.
It gets confusing [not like it wasn’t all along] because at one point we see a character explicitly dead, and later they show up very much alive. But no matter.
Many of the familiar De Palma tropes are in place, with doubling of characters, split personalities, jumps in time and perspective, and of course brilliant technique throughout. Ultimately the movie doesn’t really make sense… or if it does, it contains a great many unbelievable reversals and coincidences. But you know, so did many of the best Hitchcock films.
If you are looking to enjoy a good thriller that is satisfying on a plot level, this is not your movie. If, however, you get off on De Palma technique and would enjoy a dazzling display of it in full force, this movie is a pure delight from the first frame to the last. We’ve got to declare De Palma a national treasure or something. How sad that his work is too complex and too far above the plot level for most people to appreciate.
If you love De Palma and his technique, this is like a banquet. If you’re looking for a thriller that satisfies on a plot level, this is not for you.