It’s like Bubble Boy. Without a bubble. Or a boy.
Carol White (Julianne Moore) lives a pretty carefree, unexciting life in California with her husband (Xander Berkeley) and stepson. The solid majority of her days consist of finding out which couches’ colors work best with living rooms and figuring out which diet to go on. So, yeah, basically, Carol has nothing to worry about. That all changes one day, however, when she starts to wheeze uncontrollably; though she goes to the doctor to get everything checked out, it turns out that there’s nothing really wrong with her. However, Carol isn’t fully convinced of this, so she looks into the matter herself, and the result she finds out is a bit unexpected, if random. For one, it seems that Carol is allergic to the 20th Century; meaning, there are certain chemicals, gases and irritants that get into her system, make her sick and have her lose control of her breathing. While everyone around Carol thinks that she’s losing her mind and/or is just looking for attention, she herself still knows that her condition is real and wants to find anything that can help her get better and possibly be cured. But where she goes to find these solutions, don’t always pan-out so well.
Todd Haynes doesn’t necessarily direct Safe, as much as he just guides it on along. There’s a very simple story here that, in Haynes’ own, no-frills way, doesn’t ever try to dig too deep into; instead, he just allows for it to be told as straight-forward as possible. However, by doing so, there’s something off about Safe that makes it a movie worth thinking a whole lot about; while it would be easy to classify it as a boring, incredibly slow disease-of-the-week flick, there’s so much more going on in between the folds and lines that make it seem like so much more.
In a way, you could classify Safe as “a thriller”, but at the same time, you couldn’t – while the movie definitely has all of the tension and unpredictability of a thriller, Haynes isn’t really depending on that to tell his story. Sure, the synth-inspired score is eerie to a fault, but despite it, the rest of the movie seems to just be focusing on what happens to Carol next – whether or not it excites you, is generally just up to you and what gets you going. For me, watching this story unfold, before my very own eyes, and to know that Haynes wasn’t trying to be at all pretentious with his style, kept me wide awake and watching.
Granted, I had no clue where the story was going, but that wasn’t the point.
The point of Safe, from what I can gather, is to depict the alienation one woman can feel when she is on the brink of extreme madness and everyone around her knows it. While Carol is, initially, a pretty dull character who doesn’t really have much of a personality, through this disease that she “catches”, we begin to see her develop more and more. We witness and understand the sadness, as well as the shock that she goes through her when she starts to realize that, due to all of these excessive bouts of sickness, she’s starting to lose those around her that she considers loved-ones and friends. What’s perhaps most interesting about Haynes’ direction here, is that he not only doesn’t give us much about Carol, but also doesn’t give us anymore to know about these fellow characters surrounding her, either – they are, in retrospect, just as much of a mystery to us, as they may be to Carol.
And as Carol, it’s definitely worth stating that, as expected, Julianne Moore is great, but it’s a relatively different role for her. For one, it’s not very showy; rather than getting a plethora of scenes dedicated to where she just constantly yells, rants and raves about her disease and the issues she’s having with it, Carol is much more subdued and written-down, which probably works best for her, in all honesty. It’s best that Carol, the character, doesn’t need to spell everything out for us to get the clear picture that yes, she’s feeling terrible and most of all, not doing so well in life.
But because Moore is such a good actress, she channels all of these emotions of sadness and despair in such a way that, despite us not really knowing much about Carol apart from her disease she’s been struck with, it’s hard not to feel a little heartbroken because of it. Moore lost a bunch of weight for this role and because of that, you get the sense that Carol could literally pass-out or fly away at any second; she’s clearly not in the right head-space to enjoy anything about life, so why would she actually continue to keep up with her original diet? But gimmicks aside and all, Moore is superb here and it’s no surprise why she decided to work with Haynes again on Far From Heaven and I’m Not There, as the two seem to bring out the best within one another.
While I’m on the subject of Carol, though, I do think that now is the best opportunity to discuss a problem I found with Safe that kept me away from actually loving it a whole lot more than I should have, and it was its discussion of the disease itself.
You know, the one where you’re literally allergic to everything surrounding you.
Believe it or not, it’s actually a real disease, which is why it’s so interesting to see someone, let alone, a person like Carol, go through it all and come to grips with all of the side effects of the said disease. What’s perhaps most interesting about is the discussion that Haynes seems to bring up with the disease: Is Carol really sick? Or, is she just another lonely housewife looking for attention? And also, even if the disease is real, does it take physical-form that carries on from one body to another? Or, does it all exist in somebody’s head and the only way for a person to get rid of the disease is to make themselves feel better and more sane?
I’m honestly still battling with myself just what party Haynes sticks with and it’s actually a bit disappointing. In the later-half of the movie, Haynes dives in deep into the idea of therapy as rehabilitation and it’s not only interesting, but also quite smart. However, he seems to just leave it there for us, the audience, to pick up on and it feels like a bit of a cheat. It’s almost as if Haynes himself seemed like he had something to say about this disease, but knew that he’d piss some people off by doing so, so instead, just allowed for it all to play-out as normal as humanly possible. Once again, have no problem with this, but I would have definitely liked to seen more about the disease and what it actually is.
Especially considering that, you know, when’s the next time someone’s going to make a movie about a person with MCS.
Consensus: Anchored by an amazing performance, but never over-done performance from Julianne Moore, Safe feels like the kind of real-life thriller that’s intriguing to watch and dissect, even if there are certain style-contrivances holding it back from reaching that pure level of excellence.
8 / 10
Photos Courtesy of: Indiewire