Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Film Review: RAISING CAIN (1992, Brian De Palma)

Stars: 4.4 of 5.
Running Time: 91 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: John Lithgow, Gregg Henry (BODY DOUBLE, PAYBACK), Steven Bauer (SCARFACE, TRAFFIC, BODY DOUBLE, GLEAMING THE CUBE), Lolita Davidovich (JFK, DARK BLUE, CLASS), Frances Sternhagen (THE MIST, BRIGHT LIGHTS BIG CITY, MISERY). Music by Pino Donaggio. Cinematography by Stephen H. Burum (RUMBLE FISH, UNCOMMON VALOR).
Tag-line: "De Mented, De Ranged, De Ceptive, De Palma." More on that in a bit.
Best one-liner: "We need to find these babies now!"

You can say that RAISING CAIN is the work of a demented genius, an utter madman, an Argentophile, a psychoanalyst, or an absurd practical jokester. But it doesn't really matter, because the truth is, RAISING CAIN isn't a movie at all. It's a playground. John Lithgow's playground. And you'd better be in the right state of mind, cause Lithgow is gonna show you the labyrinthine secrets of the monkey bars; the ecstatic highs, down-to-earth lows, and endless cruelty of seesaw slamming; the dizzy thrills of tire swing spinning; the tragic bewilderment of being left behind when recess is over; and the iron-fisted, punitive detention that follows.

And by sweet God, Lithgow is having a blast.

It's difficult to discuss this film, because so much of the initial enjoyment is founded in the deliberate unfolding of the whacked-out plot which brims with gleefully unexpected moments, silly shocks, and macabre laughs. So I don't wanna say too much about the story, or how many characters Lithgow plays, or who murders who, or if this kid, presently plummeting from a great height,

gets caught or not. So instead, I'll try to speak in general and stylistic terms. But first, I must address the fact that a lot of people hate this movie. It's slightly abstruse, sure, but it's also a fun time- and it's well aware of it. More Argento than Hitchcock, the film embraces its own ridiculousness- then proceeds to play it straight. It's engaging even as it's confusing, and the overall arc is tied up rather neatly compared to something like, say, LOST HIGHWAY, but, in my opinion, the people who have knee-jerk negative reactions to a film like that will likely feel the same about RAISING CAIN.

Now it should be no surprise to most of you that Lithgow plays multiple roles in this thing, and while I don't want to outline exactly what that means, I would like to A: applaud De Palma for never showing two Lithgows in the same shot, even though the special effects which would make it possible it were ubiquitous by 1992,

and B: applaud Lithgow for, as always, being absolutely fearless, powerful, terrifying and truthful. (And, as a side note, I'm pretty sure that the fourth season of DEXTER would not exist without this film.) As I said before, Lithgow runs the gamut in this film, from crusty old-world physician to middle-aged greaser punk to frightened little boy to bungling, cuckolded spouse.

They should have given him the Oscar that year. No- correction: they should have given him all the Oscars that year.

The combination of Stephen H. Burum's glossy (yet dreamlike) cinematography and Pino Donaggio's melodramatic (but nerve-racking) score is an excellent one, and their continued partnership enables the same De Palma magic which graced BODY DOUBLE. As in BODY DOUBLE, there are one or two genuine scares which are further amplified by De Palma/Burum's visual mastery and Donaggio's unsettling, screeching accompaniment.

De Palma even manages to work in a four minute and fourteen second steadicam shot, the kind of virtuoso technical move which I'm always a sucker for.

The dialogue is theatrical- but not to the point of distraction, and the supporting roles are solid without being flashy. After all, this is the Lithgow show. Frances Sternhagen stands out as a wig-wearing specialist who may be able to unravel Cain's mysteries, and Gregg Henry plays one of those vaguely unlikable tough guys (here, a cop) which we've grown accustomed to seeing him play.

Then there's an ongoing clock motif, supposedly inserted by De Palma so that we could have a greater understanding of the film's admittedly confusing timeline (which becomes rather complex given the sheer amount of dream sequences and skewed perspectives).

However, I think the clock motif was inserted just so that Lithgow could psychotically declare, "Hickory dickory dock- Cain has picked his lock!"

Regardless, I loved every second of this film right down to the abrupt, TENEBRE-style finale, and as far as I'm concerned, the "black jokester De Palma" of RAISING CAIN, BODY DOUBLE, and OBSESSION is De Palma at his best (as opposed to the more popular, slightly mainstream, but still noteworthy De Palma of flicks like CARRIE or SCARFACE). For once, the tag-line really says it all: "De Mented, De Ranged, De Ceptive, De Palma."

-Sean Gill


J.D. said...

This film would make a good double bill with BUCKAROO BANZAI which features another memorable scenery-chewing performance by Lithgow. Man, when he's on, the guy can really hit it out of the park. Here's hoping all the praise he got for DEXTER will lead to a career revival.

Sean Gill said...

Ah, yes, I'm a big BANZAI fan. I need to rewatch that one of these days when I've got the time.

It would be nice if DEXTER jump-started some high-profile, meaty 'sympathetic but scary' villain roles for Lithgow in the future, as well. (A reunion with De Palma would be nice, too- he really needs to rise up from the 00's mediocrity he's trapped himself in (MISSION TO MARS?! BLACK DAHLIA?!.)

HK Fanatic said...

I haven't seen this one in a good 5 years but I do remember it being one of De Palma's most purely fun movies. Expert steadicam shots and John Lithgow's manic energy go a long way towards helping that, as you mention. I'd love to see this turn up on Instant Watch.

This is also a solid role for Steven Bauer, who I always thought should have been a bigger actor during the 80's after his turn in "Scarface."

Sean Gill said...

It is interesting that Bauer never really caught on, and it wasn't for lack of (De Palma) trying. Also see- GLEAMING THE CUBE.