Made on a shoestring budget over a two-year period, Lodge Kerrigan's flawless and completely unique debut feature, "Clean, Shaven" (1994), returns to DVD with the Criterion stamp of approval. An edition released in 2000 by Wellspring was light on extras and had a lurid cover that could have led the unsuspecting to think they were getting a slasher flick. While "Clean, Shaven" is a horror film, it is much more than that -- a deeply disturbing and tragic thriller, one of cinema's bravest attempts to convey the (un)reality of schizophrenia. The new DVD's cover aptly shows star Peter Greene simply looking downward, his knitted brow the only hint that there's trouble in store.
Greene plays Peter Winter, a loner who at the start is nervously driving around a desolate seaside landscape, his car windows and mirrors covered with newspaper, his worried eyes darting in all directions at once. With a minimum of dialogue, writer-director Kerrigan gets the story across: Peter has recently gotten out of or escaped from a mental institution and is trying to find his young daughter, who has been given up for adoption by Peter's elderly mother. (The girl's mother has died.) At the time of Peter's arrival back in town, a little girl turns up dead. Police detective Jack McNally (Robert Albert) is investigating (and becoming unhinged over) the brutal murder, and soon sets his sights on the strange Peter.
We're never quite sure what to believe. Is Peter indeed the killer? Are the girls he stares at while he drives around really even there? Is the cop somehow not what he seems? The "blank" performances by the mostly unfamiliar actors set against the unbearable blandness of the locale unnerves you from the start. But it's Kerrigan's use of sound that really sets the film apart. We hear what is burning into the tormented Peter's brain: the heat-buzz flowing through the power lines that trace the roads he drives along; the whir of summer insects; bits of ranting, threatening speech (from a fellow asylum inmate?); and most significantly the static of the car's AM radio, which Peter is constantly trying and failing to tune in. In the movie's most infamous scene, Peter, believing the white noise is being transmitted through his fingers, uses a pocketknife to calmly tear off a fingernail. The noise does subside at this moment, though your own heart may be pounding loudly. (You can relax a little when you find out in the commentary track that the gruesome and convincing scene was faked.)
Playing a character most people would want to avoid on the street, Greene nevertheless makes Peter compelling and sympathetic. You watch with both fear and pity as he smashes his car window so he won't see his reflection, or messily sugars up three cups of coffee to drink simultaneously. When he visits his cold fish of a mother, it's heartbreaking to see the former "normal" Peter trying to resurface long enough to ask about his daughter. (The sequence recalls Faye Dunaway's chilling, foreboding visit with her old mother in "Bonnie and Clyde.") And when Peter finally does find his girl -- in a scene that has you cringing and thinking the worst is going to happen -- he is his most calm, grounded and clearheaded, the noise gone at last. It's a heroic performance in a criminally underseen movie.
"Clean, Shaven" is one of those movies that cries out for explanation and analysis, and Criterion does a very good job of it. A running commentary has indie filmmaker extraordinaire Steven Soderbergh interviewing Lodge Kerrigan as they watch the movie. Talking shop has rarely been this enlightening, as Soderbergh homes in as only an another director can: Do you set aesthetic rules for camera, lighting and editing before shooting starts? (Having no money is a key deciding factor, Kerrigan replies.) Do you tell actors how to act a scene? How do you distinguish between creating confusion and ambiguity?
Kerrigan, who had started out making short films, decided he should just go ahead and make a feature even though he had little funds. "I've always encouraged people to do that," says Soderbergh. "Get the train on the tracks and figure the rest out later." Kerrigan says it took two years to shoot "Clean, Shaven" and another year to edit it due to lack of money.
As for his influences, Kerrigan says John Cassavetes' "A Woman Under the Influence" "is probably the greatest film made about mental instability," but also cites Ingmar Bergman's "Through a Glass Darkly" and Martin Scorsese's "Taxi Driver" as thematic ancestors of his movie.
The downside, if there is one, to this interview-style commentary is that the two men's discussion often slides away from the movie running in front of them and us, with many demanding moments just slipping by unremarked. The fingernail scene, however, gets their full attention. Soderbergh has a tough time rewatching it, but jokes about Greene's passivity, "When I pull my fingernails off, I usually scream. But that's me." (For those who plan to look away, the cuticularly creeped out moment comes at the 54-minute mark.)
Also included on the single disc is critic Michael Atkinson's "A Subjective Assault," a nine-minute video essay about the soundtrack. Atkinson narrates over illustrative segments from the film, eloquently making the central point that "innocent noises take on a menacing aura because they are decontextualized, because they are unnaturally heightened, because they're not tied to a visual."
For more on the movie's soundscape, the original music soundtrack by Hahn Rowe and bits of the sound effects are available as MP3 downloads.
An eight-page pamphlet includes a fine essay by critic Dennis Lim, who also addresses the subjective nature of Kerrigan's shots and sounds. He pinpoints Kerrigan's great achievement: "If his films [which also include "Claire Dolan" and the recent "Keane"] are about any one thing, it's not so much mental instability as the precariousness of sanity in the pitiless, brutalizing modern world."
Rounding out the extras are the vintage understated trailer and optional English subtitles.
The film itself is presented in its original 1.66:1 "European widescreen" aspect ratio -- that's slightly wider than the standard 4:3 TV screen picture. (On widescreen TVs, the picture is surrounded by black bars; on standard sets, you'll have narrow bars at top and bottom.) In his commentary with Soderbergh, Kerrigan expresses skepticism about the alleged superior beauty of widescreen, and his beautifully framed "square" movie could be Exhibit A in defense of that philosophy.
The movie's soundtrack is in mono, but it's presented in Dolby Digital 1-channel; experimenting with my home theater's speaker options yielded an impressive array of aural sensations.
Shown at festivals in 1994 and given a limited release in 1995, "Clean, Shaven" is finally getting the treatment it deserves, thanks to Criterion doing its typically sterling job. An indie thriller about a schizophrenic trying to reconnect with his little daughter while also perhaps killing another girl (or girls) in a desolate seaside town, the movie is simultaneously frightening and poignant. Lodge Kerrigan's sure-handed debut presents sound in ways we're not used to, as emanating from somewhere other than what we're looking at many given moments. Peter Greene, perhaps better known for his smaller bad-guy roles in "Pulp Fiction" and "The Usual Suspects," gives a great, nearly wordless and heartwrenching performance as the tormented antihero. For cinephiles, a must-own DVD.