Wednesday, August 31, 2011

#354: Clean, Shaven

(Lodge Kerrigan, 1994)

Clean, Shaven is a mood piece about much more than a mood. It's about schizophrenia. Rather than take the conventional path of seeing what it is like to be around a person with the (somewhat vaguely defined) disease, Kerrigan attempts to put us inside the mind of Peter Winter, a man suffering from it. While it's of course impossible to know if he succeeded, Clean, Shaven is a unique film, one that manages to combine terror and empathy in equal measures.

The film alternates between a straight-forward story of a man chasing a child killer who suspects Peter and the inner-workings of its protagonist's brain. The flashy salient moments in the film center around these journeys into Peter's mind as it slowly unravels. They range from radio-heavy sound collages to graphic self-destruction, including the most memorable moment in the film, when Peter tears off one of his fingernails to get at the imagined transmitter below it.

But the real joy (if I can call it that for a moment) of Clean, Shaven is Peter Greene's performance at the center of the film. Greene is a classic journeyman character actor probably best known for his performance as Zed in Pulp Fiction. Like most great character actors, he has an immediately memorable and fantastic face and he knows when he's playing a person and when he's playing a caricature. Because his look makes him a good fit for the villain or small-time crook, he often plays the latter, but here - when it's so clearly the former - Greene manages to immediately evoke sympathy for his condition even as we suspect (though never truly believe) that he may in fact be the killer they are looking for. It's the kind of gem of a performance that hides among almost every great character actor's list of roles, and it's extremely rewarding to see.

The film is meant as an opening up of sympathy for the misunderstood and lonely. We begin afraid of Greene - just as we are of similar mentally unstable people we encounter in real life - but ultimately come to feel sorry for the way he is treated by society. Yet his fate seems inevitable, and the answers don't lie behind a good woman or a steady job like they might in more conventional films. Clean, Shaven contains empathy, but it doesn't demand it from its viewers because Kerrigan recognizes that there are no easy answers. The film asks the viewer to sit with Peter for a time - anything beyond that is out of its control.

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