"I am what you made me, Dad."
Dr. Jenny O'Keefe seems to have it all. She has a successful career in medicine, a beautiful home, and a caring husband who has taken time off his own career as a psychiatrist to look after their young daughter. But her husband, Carter Nix, has been acting strangely lately. His attitude towards their daughter seems to have shifted from parental love into obsession, almost as if he's studying her, and he's been exhibiting swings in mood and personality. Perhaps that's why she is so quick to jump back into the arms of her former lover Jack Dante when he unexpectedly reappears in her life. And perhaps it's why she's been having these terrible nightmares.
A postmodern comedy disguised as a thriller, Raising Cain is one of writer/director Brian De Palma's most self-reflexive movies. The story is deliberately contrived to the extreme, and the movie features continual references to earlier movies. I'd go so far as to say that you can't really understand what he's doing unless you're familiar with De Palma's previous filmography, especially the lurid thrillers he specialised in from 1973's Sisters to 1984's Body Double, as well as cinema history in general and a few key films in particular. The most obvious touchstones are Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho and Michael Powell's Peeping Tom, but it also references movies as diverse as Dario Argento's giallo Tenebre, Luis Buñuel's late surrealist masterpiece The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and George Roy Hill's comedy/drama The World According to Garp. De Palma takes ideas, images and techniques from these and other movies and incorporates them into a movie uniquely his own.
Hitchcock isn't the only source for De Palma, obviously. The museum sequence in Dressed To Kill is reminiscent of Michelangelo Antonioni, and De Palma's 1982 thriller Blow Out starts out as a combination of Antonioni's Blow-Up and Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation. The much-pilloried (and underrated) Mission to Mars is often accused of being a rip-off of Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey. The Untouchables amusingly recreates the Odessa Steps sequence from Sergei Eisenstein's silent epic Battleship Potemkin. I could sit here all day coming up with similar examples. The point is that De Palma is in some ways like a hip-hop DJ, dropping samples from other movies into his own, twisting and changing them to give them new resonance in this new context, relying on their familiarity and then subverting our expectations. In this sense, it's interesting that Raising Cain was released the year after Gilbert O'Sullivan's landmark lawsuit against Biz Markie, the case that essentially ended the short-lived era of unrestrained sampling in music.
Samplers are often accused of being thieves who steal other people's music in lieu of creating their own, and De Palma has long been accused of just being a Hitchcock imitator. In my experience, these accusations usually come from people who have no idea what they are talking about. Even a cursory listen to a record like "Three Feet High and Rising" by De La Soul or "Paul's Boutique" by the Beastie Boys should demonstrate to even the crankiest old fart that when done well sampling is creative and requires significant musicianship. In the same way, it should be apparent that De Palma's movies are significantly different from and every bit as original and creative as Hitchcock's movies. It's as difficult to imagine Hitchcock directing a movie like Casualties of War or Hi, Mom! as it is to imagine Lennon & McCartney trading rhymes with the Beasties on "The Sounds of Science".1
One of the most interesting pieces of appropriation is the movie's most bravura technical accomplishment. Once the characters have realised that Carter's father was involved in a very similar scandal, they call in Dr. Lynn Waldheim, a psychiatrist who wrote a book about the case. Over the course of almost four and a half minutes, Dr. Waldheim explains the background details to the case while walking with two police officers from their office on the second floor of the police station down to the morgue in the basement. This entire scene is presented as a single unbroken shot, with the camera accompanying the actors down two flights of stairs, into a working elevator, and back out again once it reaches the floor below. Dr. Waldheim's monologue matches their descent perfectly, and she hits specific beats at key points in their descent. A couple of times Dr. Waldheim starts going off track, which is amusingly demonstrated visually by having her attempt to walk off down the wrong corridor before being pulled back on track by one of the police detectives accompanying her.
As well as being a superb technical exercise, this shot is thematically interesting as well. As Dr. Waldheim explains that Carter's father deliberately induced multiple personality disorder in a child (who we know is Carter even if the characters do not), we follow her from the top of the building (representing Carter's own personality) to the basement (representing Cain, who is Carter's id) and finishing with the shock reveal of a victim of one of Cain's crimes. The appropriation, of course, is the monologue itself. It is a far more elaborate re-enactment of the most heavily criticised scene in Psycho, the explanation by the psychiatrist that comes at the end. De Palma has wittily repurposed it in much more cinematic fashion and to far greater purpose.
The movie has been fractured up until this point, constantly shifting viewpoints, repeatedly making us unsure as to which scenes are reality or fantasy and even which characters are real or imaginary, and by eschewing any montage in favour of a ridiculously long take, De Palma brings it coherence. In one amazing sequence, we are provided with all the exposition we need while receiving visual information we'll need later (Dr. Waldheim is undergoing chemotherapy for cancer and her humourously fake wig is an important prop) and finishes with a reversal of expectation that is also a plot point: the body on the gurney is not Jenny.
Another appropriation is the idea of a scientist father whose experiments on his own son result in the son becoming a murderer, which is taken from Michael Powell's Peeping Tom. Powell's film was a relatively early example of self-reflexive cinema, positing a film camera as a weapon and problematizing the act of filmmaking as an act of violence by having its antagonist, Mark Lewis, kill his victims with the camera while he is filming them (an idea that I always think sounds goofy, awkward and overly literal in description but which is portrayed with vivid terror in the film itself). Peeping Tom goes further by having Michael Powell play the father himself, seen only in film footage that Mark continually screens to drive himself on. Even the title of the movie is relevant to De Palma, whose movies are so often concerned with voyeurism.
De Palma takes things in a fascinating direction by having John Lithgow portray both Carter (and his various personalities) and also his own father. The movie pulls some interesting sleight of hand here. On a plot level, although the dialogue prepares us for the idea that Dr. Nix is still alive, it also teases us with the idea that he may just be another of Carter's personalities. The "twist" that Carter and Cain are the same person is so transparent that we may end up congratulating ourselves on having solved the "mystery" and miss what's right in front of us. When Dr. Nix finally appears in the flesh to characters other than Carter and Cain, some audiences are genuinely surprised.
De Palma also appropriates from himself with Margo, another of Carter's personalities. Margo seems to be De Palma commenting on the common perception of him as a misogynist filmmaker. Here, De Palma provides a female character who is literally silenced (she is the only one of Carter's personalities who we never hear speak) and whose role is traditionally feminine, as her function is to protect children. Most of De Palma's female characters are complex and interesting, while Margo is completely one-dimensional - and she exists only within the mind of a man. She is also a double of Bobbi, the murderous transsexual alter-ego of Dr. Robert Elliott in Dressed to Kill. As well as both of them being alternate personalities of a male psychiatrist, Margo ends up dressed in a trenchcoat and wig (stolen from Dr. Waldheim) that gives her a look similar to Bobbi. Hidden within this is a reference to John Lithgow's Oscar-nominated performance in The World According to Garp, ten years earlier, where he played one of mainstream cinema's first wholly sympathetic transsexual characters, Roberta Muldoon.
It's Margo who finally defeats Dr. Nix in the movie's finale, a setpiece at a tacky motel which takes a lot of pains to setup a climactic impaling and then averts it with a hilarious castration joke, where a sundial that is continually being moved around on the back of a truck has its point accidentally shot off by Dr. Nix immediately before it would have impaled Jack. But her most memorable moment comes at the very end, when Jenny chases her young daughter Amy down a garden path. Amy demands to know where her daddy is, insisting that he is around even though he is theoretically on the run from the police. As Jenny stoops to pick her up, Margo is revealed to be standing immediately behind her, dressed all in red and smiling enigmatically.
It's a fascinating moment, not least because there's no way we can read it as being literal. De Palma's mobile camera has established that there is no direction that Margo could have come from, and it would be impossible for her to sneak up so close to Jenny without being seen or heard. The shot itself is appropriated closely from a moment near the end of Dario Argento's Tenebre, another consciously self-reflexive movie featuring the transference of guilt as a major plot point. Given that it seems pretty clear that Margo is not literally present, what does the scene mean?
I guess you could view it just being a fun shock effect. De Palma is quite fond of finishing on these, as in Carrie, The Fury or Dressed To Kill. But let's assume it does mean something. Margo represents a mother - a woman who will go to great lengths to protect a child. Is she the dark side of Jenny's own motherhood? But the scene preps us to think Carter is around - immediately before following Amy down the path, Jenny told a friend that she hopes he comes back soon for treatment, and Amy insists that "daddy" is around. So is Margo just a representation of the idea that Carter will always be silently watching from now on, making sure that Amy is safe? But it's also clearly a shock sequence. How about a darker idea - perhaps Margo is now in Amy's head. She's been traumatised by the events of the movie and by Dr. Nix, much as Carter was in his own childhood. We often talk about the cycle of abuse; perhaps De Palma is commenting on this idea.
The idea of Margo as Carter's strongest alter ego is very relevant to ideas that were strong in the '90s, when there the idea that masculinity was in decline and female power was on the rise was gaining traction. As a stay-home husband focused on raising his daughter and supporting his wife's career, Carter is reminiscent of the Sensitive New-Age Guy stereotype that was bandied about a lot at the time. The concept of a passive "feminized" man who manifests a stronger more "masculine" alternate persona was explored further at the end of the decade in David Fincher's film of the Chuck Palahniuk book Fight Club. A crucial difference is that Tyler Durden is portrayed as being the kind of man a woman really wants while Cain is portrayed as being an utter creep.
There is so much to chew on in this movie, it's almost absurd. And that's before we get to the compromised nature of the film. Brian De Palma completely re-thought the structure of the movie late in post-production, deciding that the audience would be too confused by its original flashback-heavy opening and that it would be better to push the main story up front. The movie originally opened with Jenny going into a clock shop looking for a Valentine's Day present for Carter. The opening shot of the movie would have shown her framed in a love heart, establishing a satirical soap opera tone. While in the store she encounters Jack and begins to consider rekindling their affair. The first twenty minutes would have centred entirely around Jenny, culminating Psycho-style in her seeming murder, at which point the movie would pass to Carter.
It's almost possible to see this version now, as a couple of years ago filmmaker Peet Gelderblom constructed a fan-edit attempting to restore the movie to De Palma's original structure. As these things go it's surprisingly effective and makes for an interesting comparison with the released version of the movie. You can see Gelderblom's recut of the movie here along with a short written piece and a video essay in which he explains his reasoning.
1 I would much rather that I didn't have to defend De Palma on these grounds, but enough people get vein-poppingly angry at De Palma's appropriations (here is an example of a typical rant; it's called "The Good and the Bad About Brian De Palma" but the "Good" part is so grudgingly written it's actually comical) that it's apparently necessary to raise the Hitchcock issue every single time De Palma is mentioned in print.↩