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.
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.
"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).
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.
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.
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."
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...)
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 cherished...by 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.
"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.
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
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).
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 bottom...to Cain's mind, where we spy his murderous handiwork (the corpse).
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.