Directed by Brian De Palma
Raising Cain is silly and extreme, a little deranged and certainly a lot of fun. The best part of the film is the final ten minutes which on its own feels like an accomplishment since many movies struggle more as the story wears on and the intriguing premise wears thin. But the final ten minutes of this film, I realize, succeed mostly on execution and not as much as a culmination of the 80 minutes of screen time before them.
The film is about the multiple personalities of a man named Carter (John Lithgow). He is a child psychologist who has taken time off work to raise his daughter with his wife Jenny (Lolita Davidovich). The story begins, however, with Carter kidnapping another mother so he can steal her son. Where some films begin at a 1 and work their way up to a 10, this one starts at a 10.
When Carter chloroforms the boy, Cain shows up. At least, I think Cain is the evil personality. Cain is the one who gets Carter out of trouble. Where Carter is skittish, Cain is pragmatic, evil and ruthless.
These personalities, we learn, were almost programmed into Carter by his dad, Dr. Nix, also played by John Lithgow. His dad was a somewhat crazy child psychologist who wanted to see if he could create multiple personalities in his son, and guess what, he did.
We’re told that Dr. Nix is dead, but in one scene, Carter or whoever he is in the moment (there’s also Josh and Margo among his personalities), talks to Dr. Nix, and it’s the first of several instances in which the movie fools you, making it sometimes unclear what’s real, what’s imagined and what’s dreamed.
When Carter learns that Jenny is having an affair with an old flame, he begins to lose what little sanity he has, and he kills his wife, pinning the murder on that old flame, Jack (Steven Bauer). Except, we soon learn that Jenny is very much alive, and Carter only attempted to murder her. This was a surprise to me, and I believe one of Carter’s personalities imagined that she died when she really hadn’t. I’m still not entirely clear, but I guess I was just as confused as Carter was since he effectively blacks out when he stops being Carter and starts to be one of his other personalities.
Now, after we learn all about Carter, without learning quite yet why he is the way he is, we get a long sequence in which we learn about Jenny and Jack. She’s a doctor, it seems, and she was caring for Jack’s wife who was in a coma. Then on New Year’s Eve, as the clock ticked to zero, they kissed passionately only feet away from Jack’s comatose wife. In one of the more surreal, thrilling, hilarious and creepy scenes, Jenny notices Jack’s wife move, and her blue, cold body stares at them with wide eyes as they kiss. That’s when she passes away.
So what I love about this film is how crazy it is and how it never has a straight character or any sense of normalcy with which to contrast that crazy. That flashback is a good example. Jenny’s life, being that she’s married to a kidnapping and unstable child psychologist, is quite crazy, and we’re given this flashback which need not be crazy since all it needs to do is establish the origin of her love for Jack. And that scene isn’t even that necessary since we can just be told that she once had a thing with Jack, which is clear based on their interaction, and that’s enough. But instead the movie insists on showing us this flashback, and then, again, it makes it absolutely nuts. She was the doctor to his comatose wife, they kissed almost on top of his wife in the hospital room (a big no no in the medical world I were to guess), and then they do so on New Year’s Eve, and then the wife sees them at that exact moment, and then she dies. Jesus Christ, it’s like a deranged soap opera, and it’s fantastic.
This movie is like Of Mice and Men except that instead of George and Lenny it is Lenny and Lenny, with a dose of Ted Bundy thrown in.
By this point we’ve established Carter’s mental instability as well as his murderous tendencies and then Jenny’s own infidelity which pails in comparison to Carter’s thing, but with that crazy flashback it somehow feels comparable. This is a story in which Carter is the danger, and Jenny is in danger, but the film makes both characters more than flawed. One isn’t the damsel in distress but someone similarly touched by insanity, even if that insanity is not her own and instead that of the movie itself.
We then get to a point where Carter murders Jenny and goes to the police with news of her disappearance, looking to frame the murder on Jack. But then the movie again switches perspectives, and we learn about Carter’s multiple personalities through the lens of Dr. Waldheim, a woman who briefly worked with Dr. Nix and is all too familiar with Carter’s condition. She tells the police, and by extension the audience, all about Carter in a very long sequence (including a 4+ minute tracking shot) which, while offering us some more information on Carter, feels mostly unnecessary. It’s really just exposition, and another movie might suffer for its inclusion, but De Palma has so much fun with this juicy monologue that it fits right into the story.
Like Jenny’s extensive flashback, this sequence doesn’t add a ton to the plot, but it does add a lot to the tone of the film. The whole situation feels rather pulpy, and it reads like a ghost story someone might tell at a campfire. From what I read, De Palma’s original script had a slightly different structure, beginning with Jenny’s story and flashback before getting into Carter’s character before then delving into Dr. Waldheim’s story. And I can’t even figure out how this film works as a puzzle in terms of how it lays down information and backstory before delivering the twists. Everything feels almost unnecessary, including the doctor’s story, but it’s almost like an archer slowly pulling back on the bow before releasing the arrow.
Eventually, after a failed interview between the doctor and Carter’s personalities, he breaks free, using her outfit and wig as a disguise to get out of the police building where he’s held. Jenny follows him, and soon we find ourselves in the final sequence, at a motel where all the character clash.
First of all, this sequence is all action, cutting brilliantly between characters and shots that show so clearly the impending doom and danger. And second, this sequence dives into its own absurdity, combining a previously thought to be dead character (played by Lithgow) and another Lithgow dressed in drag, and strong rain, and steep-angled shots, and a rogue sun dial, and a falling child, and near impalement.
Jenny follows Lithgow in drag into the elevator, and a ride that should take 8 seconds takes a few minutes. Everything is expertly drawn out past the point of plausibility but well within the realm of movie believability, considering the tone set out at the start of the film. Jenny holds a knife out, ready to attack Lithgow in drag, but suddenly and out of nowhere, Dr. Nix shows up, holding Jenny’s child, which, oh yeah, the child had been kidnapped by Carter earlier, and we didn’t know where she was.
So then Jenny wants her baby back, and then Lithgow in drag attacks Dr. Nix, in a sense I suppose redeeming himself, and Dr. Nix drops the baby. Then Jack, who showed up after Jenny, runs to try to catch the baby from the third floor, but there’s this truck that has been driving back and forth through the small parking lot this entire scene with a sundial sticking out the back about which one man had just minutes before said, ‘be careful or you’ll kill somebody.’
So you’re all ready to see the sundial impale some pour soul, and it’s headed right for Jack as he looks up while running forward to catch the girl. But then Dr. Nix, while trying to shoot Jack with his gun, accidentally shoots off the edge of the sundial, and Jack catches the girl, and everything works out well. But Carter wanders off into the night, and the final shot of the film is meant to give us a sense of foreboding even though Jenny and Jack are happy together with their child.
This film is insane. I love how ridiculous it is, and I especially love that De Palma isn’t tied down to any sense of realism. Dramas today all seem to be grounded in the world we see everyday, but Raising Cain, like other De Palma films, is like a movie made by an alien who has never experienced human life but who learned to speak and to live strictly from old Hitchcock films that it saw through a fishbowl and heard through tin speakers. Raising Cain is a disturbing impression of a Hitchcock film, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t feel like a De Palma film, because it does.
Hitchcock’s films all had their own sense of reality. Everything was a little more heightened, and there was always some kind of evil lurking under the surface. When Hitchcock’s films, by today’s standards, feel inauthentic it’s only because the technology then pails in comparison to the technology today. He shot mostly on sets and rarely on location. The lighting was harsher, and everything sounded a little different. Because of the larger cameras, certain shooting techniques were not yet available, and everything read like a sensational stage play. These were never characters you knew in real life (though maybe some where), but rather handsome leading men and young, blonde leading ladies. They were always attractive and meant to look beautiful. In other words, between the actors and the type of filming available at the time, Hitchcock’s films were the best they could be. He had his own style, but he made his films look as real as possible, and even the chosen camera movements, while meant to heighten the drama of the film, still felt grounded in the reality he was able to convey.
All of this is to say that De Palma makes no effort to demonstrate realism in his movies. The final scene of Raisin Cain feels like something Hitchcock could have shot. If you play a Hitchcock scene next to this one (in black and white), I think you’d be hard pressed to know that one was made 30-40 years after the other. What I’m taking too long to say is that De Palma is basing his films on earlier films. His ‘reality,’ is a previously established cinematic reality. These are movies that react to other movies instead of real life. They’re like remixes of songs you’ve already heard.
I don’t really have a final point to make about Raising Cain because the movie never seems to aspire to anything grand. It’s just a movie that’s in some ways about movies. If anything, Raising Cain feels noteworthy when you think about the movies made after it. Multiple Personality Disorder is a very cinematic disorder and is used not infrequently in movies because it offers an intriguing story conflict. Me, Myself & Irene is a more comic version, and last year’s Split (directed by M. Night Shaymalan) is a horror version. I can’t think of others off the top of my head, but I’m 99% sure there are several other multiple personality-based horror films. The version of this disorder in those films, like this one, feels based more on previous movies than on any realistic sense of the disorder.
So Raising Cain feels prophetic in some ways. It’s as if De Palma was jumping the gun and, knowing that movie viewing is a unique experience, decided to simply remix older films in a way a lot of them do now. Tarantino’s films, for example, are loaded with homages to past films and directors he admires. Stranger Things is heavily influenced by E.T. and other films of the 80s (a lot of Spielberg stuff going on). Hell there’s even the Fargo tv show which, while it has its own story, is soaked in Coen Brother themes, images and character types. Yes, many of these stories can stand on their own, but their appeal, and in some ways their premises, are heavily dependent on your assumed knowledge of past films.