Carol (Julianne Moore) is a bored housewife, sorry, homemaker, in the San Fernando Valley. Her husband Greg (Xander Berkeley) is a successful businessman, and the pair live in a lavish home with Greg’s son Rory (Chauncey Leopardi). Carol has many friends and an active social life, attending various parties and gym classes. There’s nothing wrong in Carol’s life, other than her new sofa being delivered in black rather than teal, yet she suddenly finds herself becoming ill, which she soon believes to be caused by the “chemicals” found in modern life. But is she suffering from a real sickness, or is it all in her head? Maybe moving to the secluded, desert-based Wrenwood Centre, a “chemical-free facility”, will result in a cure.
It may not sound like it, but I’m pretty sure this is a horror film. There’re no jump scares, psychopathic killers or monsters with giant teeth and claws hiding in the bushes, but every scene is laden with an ever-mounting sense of dread and impending doom. This is helped in no small stead by an eerily familiar yet otherworldly, haunting score, and in fact it all became too much for my girlfriend, who requested we stop watching 30 minutes in because it was making her feel physically ill, so we watched Finding Neverland instead (review pending). This was ultimately a good thing, as my better half doesn’t cope well with vomiting or injections on screen, both of which are given more than their share later in the film.
The cinematography is also wonderful, and adds to the alien feeling of the film. Director Todd Haynes rarely pays attention to Carol, and even then only when she seeks out the centre of the frame. It is occasionally an effort to find her on screen, because she is often hidden behind almost everyone else, or relegated to the margins. If anything, her house is more the focus than she is, and the camera remains focused on her sofa or fireplace when she leaves the room. I loved the innovative use of a dolly zoom too, with a camera slowly zooming in on a television showing a video on which the camera is slowly zooming out. Inspired.
Julianne Moore is tremendous as Carol. She manages to completely lose herself as a character almost entirely devoid of personality, retaining just the right balance of nervousness whilst appearing almost entirely dead behind the eyes. She gives so much with so little to work with, but she makes everything count, be it the look of mild disappointment during sex with her husband, not knowing what to order at lunch or the way she looks on blankly whilst others successfully have a conversation around her. She makes you question everything about her – does she not know how to hold a conversation, or does she simply have nothing to say? Or perhaps she’s studying these other people in an attempt to learn how to be like them. I genuinely believed for most of the film that Carol was going to be revealed as a visitor from another planet, sent to learn mankind’s ways, but that she didn’t know it herself. This peaked when it was revealed she didn’t sweat, as this seems like the kind of detail an alien race would accidentally omit when creating a ‘human’, and her intensifying allergies would be explained by her body running down as the aliens had anticipated, via an in-built destruction mechanism, like the replicants’ five year lifespan in Blade Runner.
It is the way that the plot is so open to individual interpretation that is Safe‘s main strength. However, although I don’t mind ambiguous endings, I had hoped for a few more clues as to the true nature of Carol’s malady. It is made clear that she isn’t suffering from any normal illness, as every doctor she sees doesn’t find anything wrong with her, but I’m not sure how easy it is to subconsciously will yourself into vomiting, passing out and having nose bleeds, although her initial coughing fit when stuck behind a pluming exhaust did eventually feel a little forced. That being said, I cannot fault a film for being thought-provoking, and I am still thinking about it now, over a week after I watched it.
However, even with so much going right for the film, I simply cannot recommend it. When it finished, all too abruptly and in a far from satisfying manner, I couldn’t tell you whether I’d liked it or not, or even how I felt about it. I respect and found little to complain about the technical aspects and the acting on display, but story-wise it left me empty and unfulfilled, much like Carol’s sex life. There is a possibility that the film is too open-ended, up to the point of being almost hollow and indifferent as to whether the audience has been satisfied or not, and I think that is definitely the case here. I am rather fond of that porcelain-lined space pod though.
Choose life 7/10