The climax of Todd Haynes' Safe is so intense, so gripping, so utterly terrifying and yet so impersonal and calm at the same time that it cements the film as one of the great horror pictures of our time. Like the rest of the film, it features no monsters or villains, nor even does it resort to a single shock cut. The ending serves as the flash point of the film's insidious vibe, in which it becomes horribly clear to the audience that something has gone wrong with this world. Haynes' masterpiece -- and it is a masterpiece, possibly the greatest work of unorthodox horror since Kubrick's take on The Shining -- never gives us a second of comfort, subtly but insurmountably building until you'll beg for it to stop.
At its core, Safe functions as a sort of common ancestor for Mulholland Dr. and Haynes' own Far from Heaven. It shares the hauntingly oneiric tone and the sinister, synthetically bubbling score that made Lynch's best film so unsettling, and its subversive period recreation would form the basis for the equally pristine-yet-somehow-off presentation of Haynes' ode to Douglas Sirk. Where his most well-known picture used its period to examine then-current issues of race and gender roles through the prism of modern ethics, Safe's late-Reagan setting is merely a means of tracing an issue that affected the country in 1995 (and today) to a point in time where it first became noticeable.
For its 1987 setting corresponds to the first public mentions of something known as environmental illness, dubbed Multiple Chemical Sensitivity or, more popularly, the 20th Century Disease. Its diagnosis stated that patients suffered a reaction to chemicals present in air and food, though the verdict is still out if the rashes and other reactions were purely physical or triggering psychologically. Some have made Safe out to be nothing but an examination of the disease, of Haynes' morbid curiosity with a bizarre illness and, perhaps, an AIDS allegory as well. But that ignores the inherent implications of the disease, to say nothing of Haynes' remark that he "sided with the disease."
The afflicted protagonist of Haynes' film is Carol (Julianne Moore, in her finest performance), a well-off homemaker in Southern California who enjoys the beneficial side of Reagan's voodoo economics. She lives in a mansion with her husband, where she spends her days fussing over interior decorating and lunching with other rich wives. As the opening credits roll, we ride home with Carol and her husband Greg as the camera takes in the high-class suburbia around them, rows of equally garish mansions spruced up with the "personal touch" of the bored, jobless women in each one. They arrive home where Carol sneezes as they get out of the car and complains about how cold the garage is. Haynes then cuts to the couple engaging in passionless sex -- in the missionary position, further emphasizing the banality of the coupling -- focusing on Carol's vacant face as Greg grunts his way to climax. The next day, Carol heads for a workout at one of those aerobic dance centers that used to be so popular, where her friends comment that she didn't sweat a drop.
This becomes the harbinger of a slow breakdown, as Carol's cushy world slowly constricts around her. She cannot stop coughing after being caught behind a truck that spews fumes, disorienting her as she speeds through a parking garage seeking a place to stop and catch her breath. Her nosebleeds at the salon after receiving a perm. At a friend's baby shower, she exchanges vapid pleasantries with the guests and their children ("She's gotten so big!" before suffering what appears to be an asthma attack. Doctors can't figure out what's wrong; neither can psychologists. An allergy tests reveals only a sensitivity to milk, which Carol drinks without incident throughout the film. Everyone assures her that this is all in her head, but her condition worsens until Carol's well-kept appearance deteriorates into a haunting visage of dry, outbroken skin. Her inability to pinpoint what's happening to her drives her to paralyzing fear of the world around her.
Haynes' aesthetic strongly emphasizes her growing disconnect from the world. He films in long shots with flattened composition, as if filming the pages of the furniture catalogs Carol no doubt peruses constantly to find the next accessory to make her house just right. A deliciously sly gag early in the film involves Carol receiving new couches -- those awful, modern things that look like the manufacturers removed the squashed mattresses inside fold-out couches and placed them inside large cushions for resale -- in the wrong color; she complains that they don't match anything in the house, so movers bring out the correct versions, which actually do match the house and thus magnify how creepy and off-putting the place is. Haynes captures the sets under stark, artificial light, a hyper-sterile version of the sickly, dripping lighting of your average David Fincher picture. The lighting does an even better job of undercutting the plush environment than Brendan Dolan's score, painting the world in a frightfully antiseptic tone, visualizing the chemical sheen that affects Carol so violently.
Eventually, Carol's desperation leads to full-blown paranoia, to the point that she walls herself off from the world and carries around an oxygen tank. At a hospital, she hears of a place in the desert called the Wrenwood Center, devoted to helping sufferers of Environmental Illness. Its leader, Peter Dunning (Peter Friedman), waffles between earnestness and creepiness. His solution for EI is a complete reprogramming of the immune system, accomplished by removing patients as much from the world as possible. Wrenwood forbids any irritable substances, be it food, cosmetics or controlled substances; activities are sexually segregated, and every patient gets his or her own room. Dunning teaches self-love as a means for building up the immune system, holding each patient responsible for willing himself well.
What makes Safe so gently terrifying is, at least partially, its ambiguity. Any discussion of the film will only spark debates over what it is actually about in the first place. The first half plays out as a wicked satire of Reagan's socioeconomic effect on America, focusing on its regressive impact on social and gender roles as a result of Reagan's celebration of the wealthy and his courting of the so-called moral majority. Carol devotes her life to appearances, never even sparing a thought for her child, who isn't really hers anyway but Greg's son from a previous marriage. Carol attends a support group before heading to Wrenwood, and after the speech she gathers with other women suffering from the disease and they prattle on like the gibbering nabobs with whom Carol normally associates herself. The character is often regarded, as with the rest of the film, as a test-run for Far from Heaven and its protagonist, and that speaks to how far back people like Carol took women. When she meets her psychologist, he asks her about her job and she says, "I'm a housew- um, a homemaker." She's just self-aware enough to realize she should be embarrassed for fitting such an old, reductive type, a trophy wife who spends money that her husband earns, but that doesn't make her any less an emblem of that type.
The second half blurs the themes somewhat, introducing various interpretations. The Wrenwood Center itself mocks religious cults, New Age liberal hangouts or both, depending on your perspective. Dunning not only suffers from EI but AIDS, so, according to one fawning disciple, "his perspective is incredibly vast." This open admission of AIDS confirms my suspicions throughout the film as vague references are made to a mystery illness that does not sound like EI. Near the start of the film, Carol chats with one of her friends who mentions a death in the family. Carol pauses; "Was it...," she hesitates. "No, not at all...He wasn't married," comes the reply. The doctors' puzzlement and vexation over Carol's illness could be a proxy for the initial reactions of confusion to the HIV virus, not only in their inability to treat it but from the wild rumors that sprang up over what caused the illness.
Which brings us to the third major interpretation, one supported by the director -- though he seems to be doing his damnedest to keep the mystery of the film alive, so we shouldn't be so ready to jump at the first explanation that he gives -- that it is a "gay" film. Haynes, an openly gay man, would certainly have an insight into the feelings of isolation and abnormality in a world that still doesn't fully understand homosexuals and certainly didn't 23 years ago. If Carol herself is meant to be gay, the only evidence lies in her ambivalence toward sex with her husband, but that's too vague to be considered proof and she need not be gay for the film to address the angst of the homosexual community.
The link between these varied explications is the idea of normalcy and the innate human need for it. How many homosexuals today display self-hating characteristics, particularly those in religious and conservative circles, in an attempt to fit in? (Hell, the contested notion of Don't Ask, Don't Tell stipulates that gays must pass for heterosexuals to serve in the military). The normalcy argument in regards to AIDS can be proved by looking to the far more obvious Oscar vehicle Philadelphia, an admirable if overbearing picture that visualized the paranoid frenzy over the disease by showing AIDS as such a source of madness among the uneducated that people would actually avoid the chance to hang out with Tom Hanks.
Carol's illness serves as her body's rejection of the norm of her comfortable life, a break that terrifies her and drives her to extreme actions to cure herself. Still, Dunning's techniques, however stringent, do appear to work for people, leading some reviewers to cite the ending as cautiously optimistic, suggesting that they either saw an alternate cut of the film or simply lost their minds. But this ignores the key element of the film, that the disease actually helps Carol even as it makes her the closest the movie has to a villain. It separates her from the world and drives her to fear and hate it, a reaction that, despite her deteriorating condition, strikes one as healthy after surveying the horrible world in which she lives. Ergo, the final moment of the film, in which we see Carol move into the most seclusive and sterile room in Wrenwood, where she finally feels comfortable enough to look in the mirror and say, "I love you." This shot suggests that she might be cured after all, but the clear implication of the film is that the cure is worse than the disease, and the idea that she might one day rejoin society with the same obliviousness she'd viewed it with previously is more frightening than any violent climax. In its title card, Safe appears enclosed in brackets an indication that even the title attempts to protect itself. But Haynes suggests that being safe is the problem; Carol is safe at the start of the film in her rich, well-tended neighborhood, complete with Hispanic maid to be bossed about, and she's even more secure at the end, locked away in the most solitary room of a solitary camp. What could have been the turbulent metamorphosis into a superior creature instead becomes a willful -- desperate, even -- attempt to return to normality.
Safe doesn't try to instill a fear of what's under the bed, in the closet or next door. It does not even seek to make you dread something as vague as the dark. That's letting us off easy. No, Safe makes you fear the food you eat, the luxuries you buy, the political system you support, the economy you exploit, the vapid chit-chat you trade with your equally clueless friends, even the simple act of breathing. It is a hallucinatory snapshot of the hole we've dug for ourselves, and we can be sure that Haynes agrees, albeit with more cynicism, when Dunning gently assures his patients that they are the only ones to blame for their illness. What makes it even more horrifying is the knowledge that, 15 years after the film was made and 23 years after its setting, everything is exactly the same. There's a thought to keep you up at night.