RAISING CAIN: Brian De Palma’s Split-Personality Blowout

John Lithgow gives you four lunatics for the price of one in this certifiable thriller.

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When a pitcher gives up a home run in baseball, it’s customary for the hurler to shake off the mistake and, once the slugger completes their celebratory trot, get right back to business. The opposing team’s fans are often still high-fiving and watching replays when the next pitch is thrown. Almost no one sees it.

For Brian De Palma, Raising Cain was the next pitch after Bonfire of the Vanities – and, no hyperbole, his botched adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s zeitgeist-capturing novel was the filmmaking equivalent of walking the bases loaded and surrendering a grand slam to a slap-hitting shortstop. De Palma had been handed the “Book of the 1980s”, miscast every single significant role and taken the zip off the author’s fastball. The resulting critical/commercial catastrophe wiped out any studio clout De Palma had earned after his surprise 1987 blockbuster, The Untouchables. Though the box office failure of 1989’s Casualties of War, a passion project for the filmmaker, had wounded De Palma, Hollywood generally viewed that movie as a major awards contender that got mishandled by the studio. There was absolutely no explaining away the ugly mistake of Bonfire of the Vanities.

The smart move for De Palma in the wake of Bonfire was to throw a quick strike – get one safely over the plate, and fight like hell to stay in the game. Based on the marketing materials, Raising Cain appeared to be just that: a small-scale psychological thriller starring his old pal and frequent collaborator, John Lithgow. The budget was reasonable, expectations were low and the concept seemed clean. It would be a back-to-basics slumpbuster. And that, at least as far as the rehabilitation of his commercial reputation was concerned, was the problem: De Palma doesn’t go back; he goes over the top.

For the majority of his forty-nine-year feature-directing career, each new De Palma film has amplified the themes and concepts of his previous movies. It’s a brazen case of “You think the last one was something? Wait’ll you get a load of this!” Greetings (1968) might’ve felt like a savagely irreverent satire of the Vietnam War-era counterculture, but the “Be Black, Baby” segment of its sequel, Hi, Mom (1970), outdid it by torching white liberals’ softheaded notions of racial harmony. The telekinetic mayhem of Carrie (1976) blew impressionable young minds with its outrageously gory prom-pocalypse, but it all looked rather quaint compared to Amy Irving literally exploding John Cassavetes like a flesh-and-blood Death Star at the end of The Fury (1978).

De Palma’s exploration of split personalities crescendoed as well, but far more gradually. The subject has been of interest to De Palma as far back as the conjoined twins Danielle and Dominique (both played by Margot Kidder) in Sisters (1972). In Home Movies (1979), Nancy Allen’s traumatized Kristina helplessly gives her stuffed bunny a mentally abusive male personality. And then there is Dressed to Kill’s Dr. Robert Elliott, whose conflicted desire for gender reassignment leads to the creation of a murderous female persona named Bobbi.

Twelve years later, De Palma decided to double his schizophrenic pleasure. According to the filmmaker, the idea for Raising Cain was inspired by a child-psychologist friend who’d expressed interest in taking time off from his practice to conduct an intensive home study of his own daughter. That immediately got De Palma wondering what would happen if a twisted version of his friend were to induce trauma in a child to the degree that they instinctively invented multiple personalities to cope with the abuse. And what if that child could compartmentalize these personalities effectively enough to eventually become a wonderful husband and father – that is, until his daughter reached an age where her grandfather could resume his behavioral studies, this time with a control group of kidnapped children (whose only trauma would presumably be the not-insignificant terror of being torn from their mothers and fathers)?

It’s a diabolical idea taken to deliriously absurd extremes by De Palma. Dr. Carter Nix (Lithgow) is initially presented as a loving father who’s unusually skilled at reaching out to children (in an early scene, he effortlessly coaxes a fussy child into putting on his coat). But whenever he’s engaged on the subject of his studies (a continuation of his father’s work in Oslo), he becomes evangelical. And when a friend of the family laughingly challenges his passion (while refusing to offer up her son as a “guinea pig”), Carter emphatically ends the debate by chloroforming her.

Enter Cain, the sleazy, cackling psychopath who takes over Carter’s consciousness when there’s dirty work to be done (in this case, disposing of this family friend). He’s the aberrant personality, the “fucked-up experiment that won’t go away,” but, much as the elder Dr. Nix despises him, this “loose cannon” is indispensable in the rounding up of the control group. Cain gleefully uses this knowledge to torture his father (“I am what you made me, Dad”), but all the old man can do to shut him up – albeit temporarily – is to drug his cheap booze.

Raising Cain is an especially bizarre movie when you step back to examine its narrative structure – which the film, briskly paced at ninety-one minutes, does not encourage you to do. It essentially has a split-personality itself: in one movie, there’s Carter doing his father’s nefarious bidding, while, in the other movie, there’s the illicit romance between Carter’s physician wife Jenny (Lolita Davidovich) and widower Jack (Steven Bauer). Most filmmakers would have you rooting for these non-psychotic lovers, but De Palma trashes that possibility when, in a deliciously nasty flashback, he reveals that Jack and Jenny fell for each other while the latter was treating the former’s terminally-ill wife. If that sounds icky, consider this: their first kiss comes at the stroke of twelve on New Year’s at the foot of the wife’s hospital bed. The sick woman rouses just in time to catch the two in a steamy embrace. She promptly expires.

The two stories finally merge when Carter and Cain catch Jack and Jenny doing the nasty in a wooded area near the daughter’s playground, at which point Cain cooks up the idea to frame Jack for the murders he’s been forced to commit while kidnapping the control group. It’s an elegant dovetail, but the setup is undeniably awkward. De Palma acknowledged as much when I interviewed him in 2008.

“Isn’t that just the nuttiest movie? The interesting thing about that movie is that I could not make the beginning work, and it drove me crazy. The idea essentially came from an experience I was having. I was having an affair with a married woman. She used to come over to my house before she went home, and we would make love. Then one time she fell asleep, and I thought, ‘What would happen if I didn’t wake her up and she slept through the night?’ That was what I always wanted to start the movie with – that and her dilemma instead of with the Lithgow story. But I couldn’t make it work. It drove me crazy. I thought it was such a great idea.”

A 2012 “fan-edit” by filmmaker Peet Gelderblom rearranged the scenes to approximate the above-stated intent, and the result so pleased De Palma that the new cut was included on Shout Factory’s 2016 Blu-ray release of Raising Cain. While this new version does give the viewer more time to sink into the film before it goes entirely off its rocker (Carter/Cain stage their first kidnapping in the first few minutes of the theatrical cut), this is such an unhinged piece of work, it makes just as much sense to throw the sucker punches early and often. (Personally, I love what Gelderblom accomplished, and prefer the theatrical cut to a small extent only because I watched it countless times before the reconstruction came along.)

Once the bodies start piling up, the cops (a character-actor trifecta of Gregg Henry, Tom Bower and Barton Heyman) get involved, and who should appear but the great Frances Sternhagen as Dr. Waldheim (who co-wrote the book on evolving multiple personalities with Dr. Nix). Dr. Waldheim comes bearing lots of exposition, and De Palma knows just how to dump it: in an intentionally over-elaborate four-minute tracking shot through the police station (that twice finds the detectives literally dragging Waldheim back into frame). It’s possible this is a self-referential joke, as Bonfire of the Vanities’ one agreed-upon triumph was its bravura opening steadicam shot that travels from a parking garage to the lobby of the World Trade Center. Given the on-the-nose homages to several of his other films in Raising Cain, this seems more than likely.

There are two more personalities, Josh and Margot, hidden away inside Carter’s head, but they don’t step to the fore until Dr. Waldheim interrogates him in the hopes of locating the kidnapped children. It’s a race against time (De Palma’s clock obsession is parodied to the point that a sun dial gets weaponized), and it’s unclear where Josh and Margot’s sympathies lie. Margot (perhaps a tribute to Ms. Kidder) is the true wildcard, the most feared personality given that we don’t know her precise function within Carter’s consciousness (according to Josh, she “protects the children”). When Margot at last appears, Lithgow exudes calm and confidence; Margot isn’t just in control of Carter, she’s in control of the scene. Thanks to Cain’s criminal ingenuity, Carter has acquired the means to escape, so once Margot incapacitates Dr. Waldheim, she allows Cain out of his cage to pick the lock. It’s a family escape effort.

Raising Cain’s finale takes place at a three-story motel in a driving rainstorm. There is an elevator, a glistening blade, a man dressed as a woman, a pram and an endangered child. So Dressed to Kill and The Untouchables are covered. Great filmmakers revisit and rework themes, and sometimes even remake their own movies, but how many have committed this level of self-parody while maintaining the audience’s emotional investment? It’s possible Raising Cain is an Advanced De Palma Studies course masquerading as a movie, and that only acolytes see it as anything other than masturbatory. But the technical precision of this set piece and the go-for-broke sensibility that pervades the film from frame one of whichever version you choose to watch are intoxicating. Raising Cain is no masterpiece. It’s something rarer than that. It’s an all-time-great filmmaker following two box office disasters with blissful disregard for his livelihood. In baseball terms, it’s like closing out the worst inning of your career by striking out Barry Bonds with an Eephus pitch. You’d have to be insane to chance it, and insanely skillful to pull it off.

Raising Cain wasn’t a hit, but it didn’t cost a fortune or get anyone fired. De Palma came roaring back with his next two films, Carlito’s Way and Mission: Impossible. By 1996, he was riding high again. It wouldn’t last.

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