Saturday, August 08, 2009

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Raising Cain (1992)

Still reeling from the critical and box-office meltdown of The Bonfire of the Vanities in 1990, director Brian De Palma quietly slid back into what some critics deemed "familiar territory" for his 1992 follow-up film, Raising Cain.

Indeed, the artist who had so cunningly crafted transgressive psychological thrillers such Obsession (1976), Dressed to Kill (1980), Blow Out (1981) and Body Double
(1984) appeared -- at least on the surface -- to be making a deliberate and calculated strategic retreat to safer celluloid ground.

Yet nothing could be further from the truth. Even the film's title reveals this axiom: Raising Cain literally concerns Brian de Palma "raising hell" with cinematic forms, conventions and the confusion of some, and the derision of many.

Washington Post
critic Hal Hinson ultimately termed the film "a scary prank." Rolling Stone felt it was an amalgamation of all De Palma's worst and most stereotyped qualities, cataloguing the effort as "shallow, derivative, misogynous and heartless."

A close analysis of Raising Cain, however, reveals that the film is anything but shallow. Rather, it's an intricate narrative maze that routinely shifts or fractures our perspective (echoing the film's content; which concerns a man suffering from a multiple personality disorder).

Raising Cain
is also a highly-reflexive thriller that embodies the multiple "creative" voices competing inside De Palma's head (from Hitchcock to Godard to Bunuel to Powell). Perhaps even more impressively, the film brazenly illuminates the director's own existential crisis at this point in his career: the canard that he is slavishly re-creating the work of his artistic "fathers" instead of establishing his own unique identity.

Finally, Raising Cain deftly and subversively functions as a caustic social satire, a brutal comedy of manners (much like Dressed to Kill...) but this time the subject is definitively American masculinity, particularly the so-called "crisis in masculinity" that commenced in the late 1980s and continued unabated through the 1990s into the first Bush era.

"My Father Wrote the Book on Childhood Development"

Raising Cain is the story of mild-mannered Carter Nix (John Lithgow), a child psychologist who has given up his successful medical practice to raise his only child, Amy (Amanda Pombo).

While Carter is a "hands on," stay at home Dad, his sexy wife, Jenny O'Keefe (Lolita Davidovich) works full-time as a nurse and is the family bread winner. This makes her resentful, at least in secret, of Carter.

Although professionally successful, Carter dwells in the shadow of his famous father, a child psychiatrist who allegedly runs a clinic in Norway. But the truth is more complicated than that. Some people believe that the elder Dr. Nix actually died years earlier (in a suicide attempt, following a disgraceful attempted baby kidnapping).

Carter hides another secret too: he suffers from multiple-personality disorder, or what today is termed a "disassociative identity disorder." Carter is the "original" personality, and his "twin" Cain (also Lithgow) is the bad-acting, disreputable personality, one "raised" by Carter during times of crisis to take care of him. Or to do Carter's dirty work.

Carter's dirty work, it turns out, involves the neighborhood children. Carter has been abducting them from a local playground and delivering them to his white-haired father, who is conducting a new round of experiments at an out-of-the-way, seedy motel.

Unfortunately, the brutal Cain is aroused to consciousness when Carter learns that Jenny is having an affair with an old flame, Jack (Steven Bauer). Jenny survives a murder attempt by Cain, and learns that the psychopath has taken young Amy to the Elder Nix for experimentation, ostensibly in a "specially designed" child "environment."

Carter is imprisoned for kidnapping Amy, and an old colleague of Dr. Nix's, the frail Dr. Lyn Waldheim (Frances Sternhagen) arrives to shed some light on the Nix family history. She believes that Carter's father experimented on him as a youth and actually splintered Carter's psyche intentionally, in an attempt to create multiple personalities for his popular research...which resulted in a best-selling book and a TV-movie.

Waldheim seeks to learn Amy's location from the incarcerated Carter and during an interrogation she uncovers different hidden personalities. Among these are Josh (a seven year old boy who fears punishment...) and a powerful female, Margo, the protector of endangered "children" like Amy and Josh.

Before long, Jenny, Margo and Jack separately arrive at the out-of-the-way motel where the elder Dr. Nix holds the abducted children. But is Dr. Nix just another one of Carter's innumerable multiples, or is the old man still alive, and still conducting his nefarious experiments on the children? Jenny will soon learn the truth with her own eyes.

"You Are Married to the Perfect Man:" American Masculinity in Crisis

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the fantasy of the American man being a "hero" or "conqueror" -- or even the sole bread winner in a traditional nuclear family -- was being torn apart at the seams.

Terms like "Mr. Mom" entered the pop culture lexicon in the mid-eighties after a 1983 comedy starring Michael Keaton unexpectedly became a hit. The nickname was utilized, often derisively, to describe a man who stayed home to raise children while his wife went to work outside the home and functioned as "the hunter-gatherer."

Could a man still be "a man" in the 1990s if he didn't hold down a job? If he stayed home and raised the children? Would women find this 1990s breed of man attractive, absent the more rugged qualities that had made him The Dragon-slayer in generations past?

In her book Hard Bodies: Hollywood Masculinity in the Reagan Era, author Susan Jefford argued that "the masculine way has almost run its course...the point at which no alternatives are left" (Rutgers University Press, 1994, page 176). Because of scandals (including Iran Contra and Astrology-Gate), American alpha males -- including President Reagan -- had been transformed from icons of laudable masculinity to mock-able figures of fun: imbecilic, daft, and confused. The new President, George Bush, was disregarded far and wide in the press as a "wimp."

Meanwhile, women had not only made significant in-roads in the workplace, but had also served with great distinction in the American military during the Gulf War (1991), further blurring traditional definitions of gender. Another dividing line for the nation also occurred in 1991, when Clarence Thomas, a nominee for the Supreme Court, faced a contentious confirmation hearing. He had allegedly made lewd remarks to a female co-worker, Anita Hill. But were his actions the very definition of sexual harassment, or was he enjoying dirty jokes, and flirting with a female colleague? I'm not going to take sides in that debate, but this was part and parcel of the crisis in masculinity. What could a man safely say in the 1990s, in the presence of a professional woman? Where was the new line of "appropriateness" to be drawn?

Others viewed the "crisis in masculinity" in a different fashion (and indeed, you can see this opinion reflected in 1999's Fight Club). In particular, author Brian Baker noted in Masculinity in Fiction and Film: Representing Men in Popular Genres, 1945-2000, that the failure of masculinity in modern America was a result of men not being too assertive, but of men not being assertive enough. The men of the 1980s and 1990s were simply "re-capitulating the mistakes" of their fathers, men of the post-war generation (Continuum Literary Studies, 2006, page 123). In other words, inadequate father figures and a new a culture promoting "sensitivity" had de-fanged a generation of men. The culture was becoming...feminized. Again, I'm not coming down on one side of this argument or the other, just noting that it was a topic of the times and as such, part of Raising Cain's context.

And indeed, this social concern plays out explicitly in the film. The kindly Carter is a touchy-feely milquetoast who lives in thrall to the real alpha male in his life: his father (a robust, arrogant man of the post-war generation). His dad is a world-renowned achiever; Carter just a "regular" psychologist. Carter is indeed a loving father, one who spends more than mere "quality time" with his daughter, Amy. And yet his wife, Jenny is not at all happy with him about his sensitivity and caring. One small, outward sign of this festering problem: Jenny doesn't even take Carter's family name...calling herself Jenny O'Keefe instead of Jenny Nix (forecasting, perhaps, the whole Hilary Rodham kerfuffle...)

At one point in the film, Jenny laments that Carter, the successful child psychologist, has given up his profitable practice for child-rearing...leaving her to work full time outside the home. The freedom she has secured for herself (to be either a career woman or a mother, at her discretion), is not one extended to Carter. Because he has forsaken the hunter-gatherer role, she no longer respects him. And because she no longer respects him, she also no longer sees Carter as sexually desirable.

Early in Raising Cain, Carter attempts to make love to Jenny, but stops suddenly when he hears Amy crying in her nearby bedroom. Jenny is angry with Carter over this act of coitus interruptus, and soon has an adulterous affair with Jack...a man who clearly has his "sexual" priorities straight. Despite the fact that Jenny is married (and the mother of a small child), Jack brazenly makes love to her in a park. In fact, Jack and Jenny first shared a kiss at the exact moment that Jack's sick wife passed away in a hospital room...just feet away from them (and within the dying woman's line of sight!) So Jack is a throwback, the kind of man who society tells us is not supposed to be cherished anymore...but clearly is some women. In fact, Jack is seen as sexually powerful, whereas Carter is a wimpy cuckold.

Carter's many alternate personalities also expose further the crisis in masculinity. Cain is seen as inherently disreputable. He's a smoker for one thing (another big no-no in the Age of Political Correctness), and he's also, well, psychotic. Yet, Cain is the "man of action." Carter outsources his dirty work to Cain, because as a "sensitive" modern male he is deemed incapable of protecting himself or his family. When Carter gets into trouble attempting to subdue Karen, a local mother, Cain suggests that Carter kiss her to allay the suspicions of passers-by. This is something that would never occur to the diffident Carter on his own; but a solution which jumps out immediately to Cain. Cain is Id, through and through. The voice we all hear, but rarely act upon.

Yet another of Carter's personalities, Josh, has regressed to boyhood. He's a terrified child, one constantly fearing the wrath of his father. Again -- not entirely unlike Carter -- Josh is an image of masculinity reverted to a "harmless" or impotent stage, pre-adolescent, and therefore pre-sexual.

Finally, the guardian of the children is the personality named Margo. Importantly, Margo is female. Margo rescues Amy, destroys the Elder Dr. Nix, and restores order. It is a woman, therefore, who finally usurps the role of "hero"/"conqueror" in modern America. Carter can only become a hero when he is...female. The film's valedictory shot is of a looming, powerful Margo, standing heroically behind his family (Jenny and Amy). Carter could only be himself (a caring individual and care-giver) when in the personality and guise of a woman...and the last shot explains this visually. Margo is not menacing; not evil. She is triumphant.

Yep, that's a crisis in masculinity, all right.

Raising Cain is thus a satire, exposing the schizophrenic, contradictory messages sometimes sent by our culture to men of the day. They were expected to "cowboy up" and "be a man"...except when they were supposed to be "sensitive" and "express" their feelings. They were to support the family financially; except in those cases that a woman wanted to do so herself. They were supposed to be committed fathers; but never usurp the sacred role of the primary parent: the mother. In Raising Cain, Carter is crazy, splintered into a million pieces over the competing pressures conspiring against him. Ultimately, the only way he can self-actualize is by becoming, literally, a woman.

Throughout the film, Carter is almost constantly besieged by images of perfect women. After kidnapping a little boy, he drives to his idyllic, fairy tale house, and a gorgeous woman pushing an ivory white baby carriage is seen walking across the sidewalk. She is society's image of a perfect parent...something Carter can never be; at least not until he becomes Margo.

Later, Jenny appears briefly inside a heart-shaped icon on a TV set at a local shop celebrating Valentine's Day. This image reminds us that Carter -- the milquetoast -- can never capture his wife's "heart." Indeed, in that very scene, Jack returns to stake his claim on it. Jenny's friend, played by Mel Harris, states that Carter is the "perfect man," but Jenny is already thinking of ways to get out of the marriage to be with Jack, the man who really makes her heart go aflutter (even if he doesn't take care of children). So Carter's final transformation into Margo is a sort of twisted joke on the old proverb "if you can't beat 'em, join em."

"I Am What You Made Me, Dad:" De Palma's Multiple Fathers

In some very important sense, Brian De Palma suffers the same existential crisis as Carter Nix in Raising Cain.

Both men toil under the expansive shadows of their famous "fathers," either biological or spiritual. De Palma is always being called "The New Hitchcock" or "The American Godard," but these labels always contextualize him in terms of other filmmakers; of spiritual cinematic patriarchs. Rarely is he seen as the pioneer, the trail-blazer. Only the second-comer.

In Raising Cain, De Palma once more acknowledges his debts to such cinematic "fathers" with several deliberate homages. Think of this, essentially, as Carter going to work in the same profession as his dad.

Foremost among these homages, De Palma pays tribute to director Michael Powell and his film, Peeping Tom (1960). That movie involved an adult man, Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm) who was actually a murderer. His violence stemmed from the fact that Mark's father experimented on him as a boy, testing his responses to fear, horror, and death. His Dad then recorded those responses on camera, fostering a strange pathology in Mark, one involving cameras. Importantly, Mark's father was also a psychologist, very much like Dr. Nix.

In Raising Cain, young Carter is also experimented upon, essentially made into a multiple personality case. Like Mark, all of Carter's responses are charted, dissected and recorded. And also like Mark, Carter enters "the family business" after a fashion, even installing cameras in his daughter's bedroom, to gauge her responses. This may be De Palma's expression of the insidious nature of child abuse: a cycle of violence that passes from generation to generation. But regardless of the thematic similarities, it's clear that Carter of Raising Cain and Mark of Peeping Tom are both "weak" sons abused by "bad fathers." Both are carrying on in the family biz; both are mad as hatters.

Almost universally, De Palma develops his homages a step beyond the source material rather than merely imitating them, and that is also true in Raising Cain. Mark ultimately kills himself in Peeping Tom, but Carter -- in Raising Cain's final moments -- doesn't die. His blood is never spilled to satisfy society. Instead, Carter is (willfully) sublimated inside the matriarchal protector, Margo. It's a place where he can finally feel safe; behind the protector and "Big Sister." Carter may no longer be the primary personality, but he is not wiped out either. Instead, his journey may even be one of self-actualization. In Margo's body, he can be the loving, protecting mother that we must presume that Carter never had.

Another spiritual father to De Palma is, of course, Alfred Hitchcock; and again we see him paying homage here. Once more, Psycho appears to be the well-spring for De Palma's creativity since we get a variation on Norman's disposal of bodies (in a swamp), and also the re-appearance of a man dressed as a woman (also deployed in De Palma's Dressed to Kill). Again, it's important to stress that this is not just mindless or rote repetition of familiar Psycho sequences. Instead, De Palma takes the material and twists and turns it to new purpose. For instance, after apparently dying in the Half Moon Swamp, Jenny surprisingly re-emerges to challenge Cain...something which never occurred to Marion. And far from being a villain (like Mother Bates), Margo -- the man as woman -- is Raising Cain's undeniable hero. She single-handedly rescues the children from the evil Dr. Nix.

What's more interesting, perhaps, than the homages to the "fathers" (Hitchcock, Powell, perhaps even Bunuel...), is the clear self-reflexive aspect of Raising Cain. Here -- after a dramatic career failure, -- De Palma is seen as taking up his life's work, which -- not coincidentally - was the life work of Hitchcock: the formalist cinematic thriller. Just as Carter takes up Nix's work; De Palma resumes his Hitchcockian phase. But, just as Carter transforms, De Palma transforms too. He takes this Hitchcockian thriller to an apex never before imagined, and he does so by giving the film not just one perspective, but many.

Chaotic Terrain: Subjective Reality and Narrative Möbius strip

What ultimately makes Raising Cain something more than a clever pastiche of Peeping Tom or Psycho is De Palma's purposeful splintering of the narrative in terms of our identification point.

In Psycho, Alfred Hitchcock moved our central identification from Marion to Norman (in time for a surprise, climactic reveal). Raising Cain multiplies this feat by transferring our fulcrum of identification from Carter to Jenny to Jack, to Waldheim, and on and on, ad infinitum. We therefore get dreams within dreams; delusions and hallucinations (featuring the invisible Cain) and even transferences of identities (from Carter to Josh to Margo).

In some cases, we see the same events repeated from a variety of perspectives, notably Josh's observance of Cain committing the murder of an 18 year old babysitter (Gabrielle Charteris). Time seems to over write itself in one scene involving the final disposition of two gift clocks. We double back, then burst forward.

When all this back-and-forth must at last be explained to the just-barely-keeping up audience, De Palma proceeds in snake-like, coiled fashion. He brilliantly stages an elaborate, lengthy tracking shot (approximately five minutes in duration) that follows two police detectives and Dr. Waldheim from the top floor of a police station down two stair-cases, through an elevator, down into the morgue,...where the shot ends on a close-up of a corpse's horrified expression of horror.

All throughout this masterful, unbroken shot, Waldheim explains the history of the Nix family and the theories underlying multiple personality disorders. She basically describes the events of the movie (Cain vs. Carter) in a fashion that makes sense out of perspective we've witnessed thus far. It's a journey from the top of Carter's mind, literally, to the Cain's mind, where we spy his murderous handiwork (the corpse).

De Palma understands that form must echo content, and so the form of his film -- multiple perspectives coming together -- reflects the flotsam and jetsam Carter's splintered mind. The virtuoso unbroken shot is Waldheim's tour of that mind, a narrative maze of twists and turns, of science and ultimately death. But importantly, this tour is an unbroken one (like Waldheim's dissertation), making linear sense of the tale for the viewer.

Brian De Palma's Raising Cain is an intricate puzzle, a heady brew of multiple personalities and multiple perspectives vetting a story of American masculinity in crisis; of a director's film career in crisis, even. Fortunately, De Palma provides viewers all the clues necessary to pick the film's lock. The keys to the mystery involve cinematic antecedents from Powell and Hitchcock, the language of film grammar and even the specifics of the director's own canon. And that's why Raising Cain is no mere retread, but De Palma's valedictory psychological thriller. It's his zenith in this genre form. Or as Janet Maslin wrote in The New York Times: "In his early days, Mr. De Palma sometimes labored to make his neo-Hitchcockian thrillers appear reasonable. This time that kind of strain is gone."

Indeed, in Raising Cain, the son's audacity outstrips the father's. Like Margo rising triumphantly above Jenny, De Palma rises above his inspirations and homages and attains his zenith here. Sometimes failure frees the soul to take chances without the burden of expectations. And that's what happens here. Raising Cain is no simple De Palma house of mirrors, but a go-for-broke thriller that challenges you to determine what is real, what is imagined, and who -- in fact -- is doing the imagining.


  1. I'm really enjoying your DePalma retrospective. The man has a long career of interesting and unusual movies. "Cain" annoyed me at the time; I thought it was a good movie but Jenny's survival seemed like a cheat rather than a legitimate twist. I'll have to watch it again. I hope you're planning on covering "Mission Impossible" which I loved - like "The Untouchables" it was a deceptively smart and daring mainstream entertainment. And I also hope you'll touch on the issue of misogyny; DePalma and Oliver Stone are an interesting contrast with John Carpenter when it comes to female characters.

  2. Hey DLR:

    Thanks for the comment! I am planning to review Mission: Impossible here soon in the on-going De Palma retrospective.

    I didn't much like Cain when I first saw it in 1992, but this time around I felt I could detect the method in De Palma's madness. Today, I feel it's absolute genius.

    As far as misogyny, I'm still collating data. I know De Palma is a well-known leftist in terms of ideology and that he has made films about misogyny (Casualties of War for instance).

    He has been accused of misogyny, but I don't really see it. I think he uses the language of thrillers as laid down by Hitchcock; and that in today's world those elements are often misperceived as misogyny. I think that's a distinction worth noting.


  3. I'll politely disagree on the misogyny issue; Hitch has been accused of it but it's not there, his women are strong and smart and sympathetic even when they act in "silly woman" ways (Grace Kelly in "Rear Window")... Hitch was actually ahead of his time in many ways on this which is one reason his films hold up so well. DePalma, on the other hand... in a way, I suspect he's aware of this aspect of himself... note the pain in Tavolta's eyes in the final scene of the (vastly) underrated "Blow Out" - DePalma has just killed off Nancy Allen and follow-up scene gets a huge laugh (from me, at least; I never saw it with an audience) that the entire film has been a build-up for (an example of the audacity that makes DePalma a truly great filmmaker)and that pain can be seen as DePalma's reflection of himself. "Casualties" seems to me to be a statement about dehumanization rather than misogyny...

  4. Hey DLR --

    Thank you for writing this! I (try) to address the misogyny argument in my review of De Palma's Body Double, now posted.



  6. I don't quite understand how Jenny is alive after seeing her dead body in the morgue? Can someone explain please.

    1. KaeptnKrautsalat7:23 AM

      The body in the morgue was not Jenny, it was the woman Carter kidnapped in the opening scene.

  7. After watching Raising Cain in the theatre back in 1992, I certainly noted the formal homages to Hitchcock, particularly Psycho. I thought the tracking shot following Dr. Waldheim and the two detectives was remarkable and the dream sequences were marvellously woven into the plot. Although, I admit I had mixed feelings about the film's ending, Raising Cain is definitely a film I want to revisit.


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