Pacific Heights (1990)

Directed by John Schlesinger

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A happy young couple buys up a three-unit San Francisco apartment, with just barely enough capital to get by, but has the misfortune of bringing in chaos incarnate, a man named Carter Hayes (Michael Keaton).

Hayes is something of a sociopath whose methods happen to orbit real estate.  He could very easily be a serial killer, Travis Bickle or even a superhero villain.  Though perhaps a little underused in the film, Michael Keaton’s eyebrows do most of the heavy lifting, and he sure is good at playing cartoonish villainy.

His character here isn’t meant to be understood.  He is just chaos, a destructive force of nature that has made its way into the human mind.  He is a destabilizing force that strikes out of the blue, like an earthquake or a hurricane.  Hayes sets his sights on the young couple’s Pacific Heights home simply because it looks right.

It’s similar to Cape Fear or plenty of other revenge thrillers, but in that case the antagonist had a reason to be angry with the protagonist.  They had a history, a sense of cause and effect.  In Pacific Heights there is none of that.  As tertiary characters surrounding the young couple remind them, Hayes is better left ignored.

That young couple is Drake Goodman (Matthew Modine) and Patty Palmer (Melanie Griffith), pleasantly bland, like a couple straight out of a Lifetime movie.  Their life is some kind of fairytale, and there’s something innocent about them, perhaps just because Modine radiates a strange kind of adolescent innocence (I have a hard time separating him from his character in Vision Quest).

They are meant to be supremely ‘good,’ just so they better contrast with Hayes’ anarchy and to reinforce the idea that this conflict has arisen out of the blue.  Someone like Hayes could walk right into your life, the movie suggests, seeing as how he interrupted the fantasy of two overwhelmingly perfect people.

Considering how perfect and innocent Drake and Patty are, it’s a wonder they have any charm at all.  The moments that in another movie, and sometimes in this one, feel rote and mandated, are instead acted out with what I felt was real warmth.

Yes they have strange, cutesy jobs (he runs a kite company, and she teaches horse-riding) and yes they aren’t much developed outside of what concerns the immediate plot, but there’s something joyful about them.  Maybe it really just is the fanciful dream of owning a home in San Francisco, maybe that’s all it is.

And maybe it’s looking at all this through that filter, of improbable home ownership, that draws me to this film.  For so many young people home ownership is itself a fantasy, especially in a city like San Francisco.  So then you have two characters who are able to fulfill that dream, and suddenly it turns into a nightmare.  Pacific Heights does for home ownership what Jaws did for the ocean.

The whole thing is silly and delirious, but I think it works quite well because the casting is impeccable.  It doesn’t seem to me like anyone else could play this villain except for Michael Keaton.  He’s evil, sure, but he’s also a silly kind of evil.  The fact that he and his eyebrows feel so animated helps the film avoid becoming too self-serious.  Even as the story is more melodrama than satire, there’s a sense that these characters are being regarded with a suspicious eye.  They are both meant to be empathized with and regarded from afar.

The whole thing is more than a step removed from reality, a metaphorical nightmare for a generation of privileged people.  It’s in line with the horror films of Halloween, where evil comes to your doorstep, seeks you out, perhaps as if you’ve been marked by misfortune solely because your life has until this point been so fortunate.

Nothing these characters do suggests they have this coming.  The movie even takes the possibly ill-advised step of addressing claims of racism when a friend of theirs wonders aloud if their insistence that he fill out a credit check has to do with preferring to rent to someone white.  Then the other tenants will turn out to be a middle-aged Japanese-American couple, a degree of diversity that feels shoved into the film just to insist to us that Drake and Patty are indeed good, wholesome people.

Another version of this story might have this young couple go into home ownership with the sense that it’s their right to be home owners.  There could be something there about greed, ego and self-righteous expectations.  But that’s not here.  For them the idea of owning a home is indeed a dream, one already frayed at the seams as their loans just barely cover the costs, and even then they can’t endure further repairs and the chaos that is Carter Hayes.

Up Next: Seconds (1966), Alex in Wonderland (1970), Knight of Cups (2015)

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