One of the more depressing critical threads that wove its way through the positive reviews of the recent Transformers film was that, for the film's glaring flaws, somehow its garish orgy of grease and gears constituted "pure cinema," as if the form's zenith is achieved solely by throwing money at the screen. By the same token, I would actually somewhat agree with the idea that the most cinematic moments in film tend to be the ones least connected to reality and tethered in some fashion to camp, even trash. The florid visual melodrama of Powell/Pressburger, Nicholas Ray or Martin Scorsese capture, for me, the essence of the artform, usually in the gaudiest, most brazen of moments. But if trash is one aspect of "pure cinema," skill obviously constitutes the X factor that finds the art and beauty within cinema's capacity for otherworldiness.
Going through Brian De Palma's canon has convinced me that, in the modern age, no one is better able to make pure cinema from the unlikeliest and most repellent of sources than De Palma, not even the wonderfully garish Tony Scott. Thus far, my favorites of his films—Hi, Mom!, Phantom of the Paradise, Body Double, etc.—have been the trashiest, transgressing all boundaries of moral and aesthetic taste while still displaying a keen satiric and visual prowess. His late-'80s strain of pure Hollywood features, even the intelligent and affecting Casualties of War, lack the madness De Palma pushes to the brink of abandon, and I found myself wishing for a return to the more gauche side of his filmmaking.
Which brings us to Raising Cain. A kid brother to Body Double's transgressive deconstruction, Cain has the feel of Martin Scorsese's After Hours, a broken dreamscape into which its maker can pour all his career frustration. Scorsese got out his humiliation over Last Temptation's first major ordeal, while De Palma had to contend with the tangible commercial and artistic failure of The Bonfire of the Vanities. Cain is a return to form in a literal sense, an explosion of De Palma's voyeuristic, oneiric, insensible horror-comedy (or comic-horror) to remind everyone who he was under the new studio gloss. Its first image is a slow zoom-out on a pixellated image that slowly coalesces into a view of a father tucking his daughter into bed. It's one of De Palma's simpler opens, but also one of the most provoking, the grainy image prompting several questions: Are they on TV? Is someone watching them? Is De Palma, as ever, openly visualizing the falsity of the film from the start?
The answer to all of these is yes, and it is of paramount importance that one truly takes in the full meaning of the last question. Even more so than Body Double, with its sudden dips into lurid subjectivity and shifted perspectives, Raising Cain is a film without a sensible plot; it is wrong even to call it "labyrinthine," for that word connotes at least the possibility of escape. Cain exists within the unnavigable folds of dreamspace, a demented take on Peeping Tom that fractures Powell's dark psychological thriller further. But if this is all a dream, whose is it? Oh, hell if I know: never before has De Palma's ability to move through character perspectives in a single sequence, in a single shot even, been so thoroughly used.
In fairness, the director is kind enough to let us know things will not be as they seem from the start, with child psychologist Carter (John Lithgow) cracking within the first few minutes in the car with a friend and their children. Seeking to take her kid to a strange psychological complex in Norway, Carter suddenly chloroforms her and has a chat with a split personality, a tough, greaser-looking cad named Cain. In the next five minutes of screen time, Carter/Cain takes the car home, remembers that a passed-out woman and crying child are in it and slips away from his wife, Jenny, to go meet his insane, psychiatrist father Dr. Nix (also Lithgow) with the young sacrifice.
The rest of the film is, if you can believe it, even stranger. Scenes shift tone abruptly, going from the merely weird to the unabashedly wild, moving in and out of so many "it was only a dream" reveals that De Palma obliterates what limited meaning that stylistic device still had. In one astonishingly fluid sequence, the film moves from a midnight tryst between Jenny and lover Jack (Steven Bauer)—itself wrapped around an unsettling dream/memory injected into the love scene—into a sudden turn into karmic punishment that awakens a perturbed Jenny, only for the scene to take yet another turn when Carter abruptly asphyxiates her and drives her limp body into a lake. The swirl of guilt and betrayal mingles so strongly that it's nearly impossible to tell when Jenny's dream turns into Carter's, and later matters are complicated more when that which seems a dream becomes more real. But even that is presupposing that anything in this diegetic world actually happens.
Aesthetically, Raising Cain doesn't shatter as many boundaries as Body Double, but in some ways it benefits for its more consistent style. Where De Palma's last great anti-narrative openly took aim at the aesthetic devolution of '80s mass consumerism, Cain exists more as its own fever dream. Accordingly, the breaks are less stylistic, more untraceable. De Palma uses that to his advantage, at once unsettling the audience at all times and inviting them to be lulled into its movement, only to jar them back in a flash. This is best exemplified in a scene where Carter watches his television, dumbed by its calming glow. But when he shuts it off, it goes back to being the monitor he had in his daughter's room, where a water-logged banshee stares furiously into the camera. I nearly leaped out of my skin.
I can't think of many showcases for an actor odder than this: Lithgow is tasked with playing the mild-mannered, loving Carter; the snide, violent Cain; Margo, a matronly figure vile and domineering enough to be the spectral form of Norman Bates' mom latched onto a new host; Josh, a meek child who lives in fear of Margo and Dr. Nix; and Dr. Nix. Lithgow not only has to switch between these personalities but interact with himself, not only with the separate figure of Dr. Nix but of several manifestations of his selves; Lithgow even overdubs his voice onto a child who confronts Cain, sounding like Lucifer on helium when he ominously intones "I know what you're going to do. It's a bad thing, and I'm going to tell." (Or maybe it isn't Lithgow; at the very least, it's clearly an altered voice that's gone from low to high).
Lithgow pulls all this off, however, delivering the finest performance of his career—and easily one of the best to grace De Palma's notoriously spotting acting field—as he manages to switch accents and demeanor without slipping into lazy scenery chewing. Hell, the scenery does a good enough job chewing itself; the movie needs his performance just to maintain any semblance of form. Lithgow recognizes where his character(s) is at any moment and even adds minute detail that show clear forethought: consider the faint girlish squeal he makes when he sneezes in the car with Karen at the start. It undermines the verve of Carter's rising passion as he argues for the possibilities of extreme psychological monitoring of children, every light squeak poking holes in his increasingly disturbing spiel, only for Lithgow to openly lash out moments later.
The camerawork felt like a distraction in Bonfire of the Vanities, but De Palma is back in his element again. He turns the obligatory Psycho-esque psychiatrist explanation into visual extravaganza by putting movement in the scene and crafting an intricate tracking shot that even tilts to move parallel to the doctor and the cops. And the climax is one of the director's best moments, a multi-tiered showdown at a motel with disorienting yet stable and well-timed cross-cutting between Lithgow's fractured state above (as Carter's father) and one floor below as Carter/Cain/Margo. There's a baby carriage, some oranges and a knife to make things all the more bewildering, but a slow-motion shot of a falling child moving through the various levels of perspective clarifies the spatial relations of everything in the shot and makes perfect sense of the scene. I cannot believe I just wrote that.
It's a wild summation of the movie, and the drifting denouément is one last reverie in this demented world. It's also one that lends credence to Eric Henderson's view that the whole thing is in the daughter's head, or at least that the film is her attempt to come to terms with what happened to her at the hands of an abusive parent. But I can't help but feel that he's tackling the issue of the Gordian Knot by cutting the rope; as even Henderson earlier admits, the film has "no forum for this type of psychological exchange because there isn't a rational control group." The final shot, supposedly stolen wholesale from Dario Argento's Tenebre (a film I haven't seen), is one of the most puzzling endings in De Palma's storied career of head-scratching closers. The reveal of Lithgow in gloriously unhinged drag behind Jenny and Amy is the last reminder that nothing in this film can be trusted, that even within the inherent falsity of cinema, this film is a load of crap. Yet it's one of De Palma's most engaging pictures, if just outside his upper echelon of truly magnificent garbage, and a welcome relief from the increasingly starched style of his more glamorous Hollywood pictures. But it would not be until his next film that De Palma would find the balance between those two styles and deliver his finest work.