Review by Gordon Justesen
Julianne Moore, Peter Friedman, Xander Berkely, Susan Norman, Kate McGregor
Stewart, James Le Gros
Director: Todd Haynes
Audio: PCM Mono
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Features: See Review
Length: 119 Minutes
Release Date: December 9, 2014
ďI'm sorry. I know it's not normal but I can't help it.Ē
Iíve seen many unsettling films before, but Todd Haynesí 1995 film Safe is unique in its unsettling nature. A lot of it comes from how the film is visualized and structured. And a big part of it has to do with a most unexpected detour the film takes in itís second half.
The film starts out simple enough. The setting is Los Angeles in the 1980s. Carol White (Julianne Moore) is your typical housewife who appears to be suffering from some sort of illness.
The only problem is, her doctors canít seem to detect anything wrong with her. Even a psychiatrist suggests her problem may exist only in her head. But she nonetheless feels as if anything and everything in her surrounding environment is causing her condition to worsen.
For the first half of the film, it feels like we are experiencing sort of a ďdisease of the week TV movieĒ. Only this one is easily elevated by the bold artistic filmmaking courtesy of Haynes and devastatingly raw performance by Moore, in what is considered to be her breakthrough role. But then the second half kicks in, and just when we think things are about to get better, Safe switches over to a whole other unsettling environment.
Carol learns of the existence of a ďnursing homeĒ that welcomes those with all kinds of illnesses. It is in the desert and run by a doctor named Dunning (Peter Friedman), who has AIDS but lives in a mansion on a hill overlooking the facility. She goes to stay there, where she is told by the doctor that her condition was caused by her and the only way to improve is to get more in touch with herself. It gives the appearance of a cult more than anything else, and the subtle way Haynes lets this notion unfold is what makes it all the more unsettling.
In the end, there is no clear answer...and thatís the entire point of the film. It suggests that Carolís allergic behavior might possibly be a form of protest to living a pointless, empty life, which her life as a housewife is certainly depicted as. And the final shot of the film very much indicates that things wonít ever get better for her.
Haynes and Moore are clearly two artists who understand each otherís work tremendously. They would later collaborate and the equally tremendous Far From Heaven in 2002. Safe was a breakthrough work for both of them, and itís easy to see why. Iím always up for a film to shake me in a most original way, and thatís what this powerful piece of filmmaking has truly done.
This is my first time seeing the film, but itís my understanding that Todd Haynes oversaw a massive cleaning of the presentation from the initial DVD release for its Blu-ray debut from Criterion. The results are most astonishing, to say the least. The filmís distinctive approach, which doesnít include that of an explosively colorful picture, is captured tremendously well in this 4K transfer. The mood and the 80s setting ring completely true as a result, as image detail is phenomenal from beginning to end!
At first, I was puzzled that a film from the 90s was only getting a mono mix for a new Blu-ray release. Much to my surprise, the sound mix turned out to be most effective as it beautifully captures the key sounds of the damaging environment the lead character finds herself in. Music playback is nothing short of fantastic, in particular the unique score by Ed Tomney which perfectly mirrors the feel of dread throughout the presentation!
Criterion excels yet again with a most terrific listing of extras for this release, starting with a commentary with Todd Haynes, Julianne Moore and producer Christine Vachon. Thereís also a fascinating conversation with Haynes and Moore, as well as an interview with Vachon. Also included is "The Suicide," a 1978 short film by Haynes and a Trailer. Lastly, thereís an insert featuring an essay by critic Dennis Lim.
Safe is unquestionably an effective piece of work. No film has managed to unsettle me in a truly original manner. For both Todd Haynes and Julianne Moore, this is a tremendous accomplishment and a pivotal breakthrough.