The audaciousness that marked Todd Haynes’ earlier work has been supplanted by self-important preachiness in “Safe.” Highly controlled and precise stylistically, director’s follow-up to his award-winning”Unzipped,” “Poison” delves into the ominous condition of “environmental illness” in an arid, pretentious way that will try the patience even of viewers who come to it sympathetically. Sony Classics will have its work cut out sustaining public interest in this arty indie after initial anticipation is deflated.
Haynes spends the film’s first half slowly detailing the particulars of a suburban wife’s physical and psychological malaise, creating a growing sense that he will soon work some twist into the material to give it some ironic or satiric perspective. Alas, one waits through the entire two hours hoping that he will save himself by puncturing his own balloon of self-seriousness with some of the bizarre humor and inventive genre-bending that has characterized his films to date. But it never comes.
Julianne Moore plays Carol White, a San Fernando Valley woman whose entire life is defined by her status as an upper-middle-class wife and homemaker. She tends to the decorating of the gaudy home she shares with her husband Greg (Xander Berkeley) and stepson, works out at the gym, socializes occasionally with local ladies and embarks on a fruit diet with one woman friend.
Her existence is clean, proper, passionless and without stimulation of any kind, and the character is never imbued with a hint of inner life or original thought.
The only unusual occurrences are Carol’s periodic attacks of coughing, which escalate into nosebleeds and increasingly severe seizures. The doctors can’t really find anything wrong with her, but it eventually turns out that Carol is “allergic to the 20th century,” a member of the advance guard of people seemingly hyper-sensitive to the ills of our time, which in this case come to mean toxins of any kind, from outright pollution to traces of cologne.
Unable to find a cure for what ails her, Carol retreats to the Wrenwood Institute in New Mexico, a rural New Age compound devoted to the care of the “healing” individual and presided over by self-love guru Peter (Peter Friedman).
It’s here that one expects the film to take off into satiric territory, but instead it becomes ponderously suffocating, as touchy-feely characters beam meaningfully, expound at length on their ills and search with vacuous sincerity for their road to recovery. Ambiguous ending leaves the viewer hanging.
During the opening reels, the highly stylized look at manicured suburbia and the mirrored sterility of the Whites’ home makes one suspect that some Douglas Sirk-style irony may be in store. The repeated shots of malls, crowded freeways and artificial environments also suggest the Antonioni of “Red Desert,” and inspire the notion that an ominous, body-snatcherlike threat might be ready to trigger some sort of Armageddon at any moment.
But none of these strains is followed up, as the film curls up into dramatic withdrawal and finally, aggravating stasis during the Wrenwood section. Haynes knows all too well he is grappling with a heavy theme but his seriousness of intent entirely squelches his previous trademark senses of drama and irreverence.
Moore, who is center-screen nearly the entire time, seems ready and willing to give a tour de force performance but her Carol has no layers and therefore, nothing to reveal. Other characters are similarly one-dimensional, but at briefer length.
Shot in Southern California in a seemingly perpetual cold twilight, pic is technically elegant in all particulars.