In the Class of … series, Nick Rogers takes a monthly look back at films celebrating their 20th or 30th anniversary of initial release this year — seven from 1992 (the extra in June’s double-feature column) and six from 2002. The self-imposed rules of the column: No films with an Oscar nomination and no films among their year’s top-10 box-office grossers.
“What is the difference between troll and man?”
“Out there, where sky shines, humans say: ‘To thyself be true.’ In here, trolls say: ‘Be true to yourself and to hell with the world.”Peer Gynt, Henrik Ibsen (1867)
“I am what you made me, Daddy!”Raising Cain, Brian De Palma (1992)
Stoked as much by Romantic-era embers and folkloric whimsy as a searing satire of Norway’s social hierarchy, Henrik Ibsen’s landmark play Peer Gynt opens its fifth and final act with its title character as an old man facing his shortcomings. Peer is confronted by works unfinished, questions unasked, emotions unexpressed. For all of Peer’s adventures in his native Norway, and his less ethical exploits abroad, there is but a void in Peer where life should flourish, whether it’s virtuous, vicious or somewhere in between. It all started when his father abandoned his family under dubious circumstances and snowballed across an existence of experiences that span continents but yet feel over in a snap. Under varying guises, God and the Devil demand a toll of Peer Gynt for his failure to create any moment in his life where he was ever truly “himself,” and Ibsen’s curtain falls without any conclusive reveal of which piper Peer eventually pays.
If Peer Gynt rings a bell for another reason, Ibsen asked fellow Norwegian Edvard Grieg to compose incidental music for the play. You’ve almost certainly heard it. A great deal of Grieg’s work has endured as popular soundtrack cues, including the thunderous “In the Hall of the Mountain King” and a thematically pivotal snippet of the lilting “Morning Mood” in Brian De Palma’s 1992 film, Raising Cain. Like the play itself, Raising Cain bounces between interlocking conscious and subconscious, blurred lines between reality and fantasy. So it’s a fitting cue to hear “Morning Mood” as musical accompaniment on a clock romantically gifted by one woman to two different men — one of whom is in the throes of a dangerous unwinding.
In a few days, De Palma will turn 82. He hasn’t shot a film since 2017 when he made Domino, which he roundly disavowed upon its 2019 release as a bastard born of producers’ interference. Like Peer in Act V, De Palma is nearing the ultimate assessment, and his criteria might be whether, across six decades of filmmaking, he has left any consideration of vice unexplored.
As marketing materials for Raising Cain touted with their slogan of “De Mented. De Ranged. De Ceptive. De Palma,” the director is best recognized for his portrayal of vice’s peddlers — from unrepentant scumbags in signature selections like Blow Out and 1983’s Scarface to later works like the vilified fiasco The Bonfire of the Vanities or 2002’s Femme Fatale (on which there is a critical split). Unsurprisingly, De Palma’s most commercially successful works (1987’s The Untouchables and 1996’s Mission: Impossible) chronicle champions of a crusade against vice. Understanding the in-between as well, De Palma would sometimes split the difference as in 1998’s Snake Eyes, Casualties of War and, for my money, his all-time masterpiece of Carlito’s Way. It’s hard to argue De Palma hasn’t touched all the bags. But you have to consider the artist’s perpetual self-doubt: Was this a mistake? What have I done? Why did I do it? Am I a fraud?
These questions seem to have particularly consumed De Palma once he was done filming Raising Cain. He was understandably gun-shy coming off the colossal failure of Vanities two years earlier. That farcical softening of Tom Wolfe’s epic novel into awards-bait slop remains shorthand for studio excess. The immortalization of its checkered production through the book The Devil’s Candy: The Anatomy of a Hollywood Fiasco outlined De Palma’s part in a rigorous manner that’s everywhere online right now but rarely seen back then. Everyone believed Scarface would ruin De Palma seven years earlier, but that film at least had supporters in the days before it became a rap-culture classic. If the previous eight years had found De Palma largely departing from his seamier side, the failure of Vanities found him retreating to familiar territory in Raising Cain. (Coincidentally, it was also the only film of his produced by then-wife Gale Anne Hurd, whom he wed in 1991 and divorced by 1993.)
So deep was De Palma’s distrust of his own instincts, though, that he radically rearranged Raising Cain prior to its August 1992 release — flip-flopping the first two acts to more swiftly establish its psychological thriller bonafides. The result is not unlike the Rolling Stones opening a show with “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” Nice to hear a familiar, monstrous riff from someone who still has the chops, but where’s all that energy going to go for the next 90 minutes? As is sometimes the case in De Palma’s theatrical cut, it feels like someone perfunctorily playing hits as penance.
Almost 20 years later, Dutch filmmaker Peet Gelderblom learned about De Palma’s regret for this decision, found a copy of De Palma’s original script, reordered the film in its original sequence, and released it online in early 2012. Enamored by Gelderblom’s work, De Palma persuaded Shout! Factory to hold off on a Blu-ray release of Raising Cain until Gelderblom’s edit could be included as a “director’s cut” — which it was, alongside the original, in 2016.
Gelderblom’s version includes no previously unreleased material; it runs a few seconds longer by virtue of one brief scene repeated to re-establish chronological bearings at a critical moment. But Gelderblom’s 2012 version could hardly feel more different, destructive and deconstructive than the 1992 cut. It inspires even more questions about what betrayals are factual or fictional, sends the mind to wonder whether what we’re seeing is actually transpiring or simply visualized temptation, and wreaks far more playful havoc with narrative time and reliability. In other words, it perfectly encapsulates an era of enervation from which De Palma sought to escape. De Palma’s instincts were right; his understandable inhibitions got in the way.
In Peer Gynt, the accompaniment of “Morning Mood” takes place at the height of Peer’s distraction from the aimlessness of his life, high on the hog from amoral activities abroad. That analog is there for child psychologist Carter Nix (John Lithgow) in the 1992 cut, it’s simply strengthened in the 2012 cut by largely removing him from the story’s center.
Instead, the first act focuses on Carter’s oncologist wife, Jenny (Lolita Davidovich), and her extramarital affair with Jack (Steven Bauer). He’s the widower of one of Jenny’s patients, with whom Jenny shared a passionate New Year’s kiss moments before that patient’s death several years earlier. (For all his creative anxieties at the time, anyone who thinks De Palma wasn’t capable of a good laugh in Raising Cain probably takes the uproarious shock-stinger depiction of said death far, far too seriously.) As Jenny and Jack embark on their affair, composer Pino Donaggio puts an artier, lushly orchestral spin on the sort of music that would accompany Shannon Tweed’s deeds with Andrew Stevens on late-night Cinemax.
Jenny’s friends wonder if she realizes she’s already married to the perfect man in Carter. Jenny wonders if that’s really the case. Did Carter really need to abandon his practice for such immersive stay-at-home care of their daughter, Amy? Why, after initiating passionate sex with Jenny, does Carter withdraw and leave the house so suddenly? And what’s with that elaborate monitoring system Carter has set up in Amy’s room? Children are certainly endangered in Raising Cain, albeit not with the seediest sadism you might suspect and it’s more of a narrative means to the psychological ends that fascinate De Palma.
Only after a half-hour has passed in the 2012 cut — and Carter puts a pillow over Jenny’s face after discovering her infidelity — do we understand the full measure of her reservations. As it turns out, Carter has taken to kidnapping the children of family friends, and murdering the mothers made to mind them; had De Palma kept the original title of Father’s Day, it would have twisted the thematic knife even further.
How does a bundle of nerves like Carter do terrible things like this? That’s where Cain (also Lithgow) comes in. He’s the leather-and-sunglasses devil on Carter’s shoulder spurring him toward sinister behavior at the behest of their believed-dead father, Nix Sr. (also Lithgow). Nix Sr. (or “Boomsie” as Carter and Cain call him) is a domineering docent of dangerous psychological experimentation eager to resume his own research on children — including his own granddaughter — at his secret clinic in … yep, Norway. And what of Josh and Margo, other oft-mentioned members of the Nix clan? What are their roles in all of this madness?
The purity of the performative playground built for Lithgow makes it easy to see why he reunited with De Palma after their collaboration on Blow Out a decade earlier. A physically acute one-man wrecking machine, Lithgow morphs from a gentle giant into a brutally imposing bully by virtue of his brow alone, furrowing in fear as Carter and arching into aggression as Cain. Lithgow does just enough to express the sexual attractions, too, even as Raising Cain is readily among De Palma’s least lurid works in his vein of vice. As Carter spies Jack and Jenny making love in a park (where the mist rolls in like Brigadoon befouled), Lithgow’s face alone suggests the slightest, ahem, physical response to Carter’s voyeurism (or is it Cain’s?). That’s not to mention Lithgow’s contribution as Nix Sr., through whom the story offers strong surprises, and … well, just see for yourself what else Lithgow gets to do in a turn that rivals his work as Dr. Emilio Lizardo in the comparatively lighthearted The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension for the great actor at his most gloriously unrestrained.
But which version of Raising Cain to choose? Either option requires at least a couple leaps of faith in either option, predominantly how Jenny survives a rather rigorous attempt on her life. There are far more pleasures to share in either option, though, such as a sinking car a la Psycho or a violent vision outside San Francisco’s Palace of the Legion of Honor because … well, Alfred Hitchcock filmed scenes from Vertigo there. De Palma also visually name-checks his own Dressed to Kill and The Untouchables. Never let it be said that De Palma doesn’t tip the cap, sometimes with deeper cuts and as often to himself as past masters.
Both versions also feature a 254-second one-take shot in which De Palma and longtime cinematographer Stephen Burum bring muscular technical virtuosity to bear on reams of exposition. Arriving with goofy jokes about how the Nix family history has been turned into a TV movie, psychiatrist Lyn Waldheim (Frances Sternhagen) has crucial information useful to the police officers who are investigating all these kidnappings and murders. She reveals it as they go up, down and all around a police station that would make city budget managers weep and architects weep with joy.
The sequence is one chalkboard shy of what Ben Kingsley would do nearly 20 years later in Shutter Island. But De Palma avoids that moment’s excruciating cringe through clever camera movement that says as much about the man orchestrating it as the actors at its center. Destination be damned, Waldheim barrels ahead at her own pace; at one point, the cops have to literally pull her (and, by proxy, the camera) back to them as they continue down a staircase (in which the image tilts to a 45-degree angle, of course). It feels like De Palma seeking his own bearings in a place with so many steps that lead to dead ends, switchbacks and other places he doesn’t quite belong. You’re not quite sure just what track Raising Cain will take in the third act, either, and it musters energy that’s morbidly funny and increasingly malevolent.
However, it does so best in Gelderblom’s edit by most deeply honoring the film’s underlying themes and De Palma’s ideas. It hums on the feeling that your truest, most inward self is always the most inescapable and, to the outside world, generally the most inscrutable. By shifting the reveal on Carter as it does, it subjectively pits impulsive response versus instinctive motivation (a tension also found in the yo-yoing subject matter of De Palma’s résumé). The only thing Gelderblom could have done better is to obscure Lithgow’s face and voice at all until he’s consoling Jenny and then suddenly choking her. That would also leave you wondering who Nix really is when he’s with Jenny in those moments of apparent domestic tranquility: Carter or Cain. However, that would have required reshoots or digital trickery that was neither at Gelderblom or De Palma’s disposal nor a priority for distributing studio Universal (although, with a worldwide gross of nearly $40 million, Raising Cain was a modest box-office success for the studio).
No matter the version, Raising Cain represents an often overlooked rebound for De Palma in the wake of his career nadir — and right before a commercially successful rebound through the remainder of the decade (Carlito’s Way, Mission: Impossible, Snake Eyes). If De Palma had initially gone through with his original vision (almost universally considered the superior version), perhaps that trajectory would have changed, too. At this point, De Palma might be functionally done with filmmaking. His best days are certainly behind him. (For those interested, the terrific documentary De Palma is a transfixing chronological, first-person reflection on his filmography.) But Raising Cain proves that De Palma has been self-reflexively musing on his own past, present and future well before now — a cinematic life of vice, virtue and everything in between unlikely to be found wanting by any metric or mediator.