Judge Brendan Babish had a radio transmitter installed beneath his scalp. He uses it to listen to talk radio.
No one is left unscathed.
In 1995, writer/director Lodge Kerrigan (Keane) released Clean, Shaven, his debut feature that was shot over two years on a miniscule $60,000 budget.
Facts of the Case
Peter Winter (Peter Greene, The Mask) is a schizophrenic searching for his young daughter that was put up for adoption while he was stuck in a mental hospital. However, his mental state is severely compromised by the static and radio waves emitting from the tracking devices he believes were implanted under skin at the institution. This instability hampers his ability to communicate, and occasionally leads to sudden outbursts of violence.
Clean, Shaven is not so much a traditional narrative, but an attempt to subjectively depict the psychological state of schizophrenia. As one can imagine, being inside the head of a schizophrenic is hardly a pleasant cinematic experience. And by attempting to dramatize such an unsettling condition, Lodge Kerrigan finds himself in a paradoxical position: the more we empathize with Peter—get in his head, so to speak—the more effective the movie is. However, by so accurately portraying the paranoia and delusions of schizophrenia, Clean, Shaven ensures alienating a sizeable amount of its audience.
Indeed, Kerrigan deserves a lot of credit for making such an uncompromising, unrelentingly disturbing film. The strengths of the movie are obvious. Peter Greene, who has achieved solid character actor status for playing roughnecks (perhaps most famously as Zed in Pulp Fiction), excels as the tortured Peter. Green has been nearly universally lauded in this role, and somewhat justifiably, since his performance is essential in conveying an accurate and believable portrait of this condition. And in the context of a film with a budget this small, and a supporting cast this uneven (Robert Albert, who plays Detective McNally, is particularly weak), Greene's performance is especially laudable. But in the past few years, Ralph Fiennes in David Cronenberg's Spider and Damian Lewis in Kerrigan's own Keane have both portrayed men with schizophrenia so brilliantly—and without the slightly excessive shaking Greene employs—that it is difficult not to somewhat downgrade Greene's own worthy efforts.
One also cannot dismiss the talent and ingenuity Kerrigan shows in his debut. Employing a variety of unconventional angles and framing, stark landscapes, and an evocative soundtrack featuring a mishmash of radio stations and static, he is able to cobble together a vision that is both frightening and heartbreaking. In Clean, Shaven Peter's journey signifies the triumph of paternal love over debilitating mental illness. It's actually an optimistic and romantic ideal, and the dichotomy between this and the reality—Peter cutting a hole in head to get to the transmitters—is a jarring and moving experience. This is bravura filmmaking that heralds a great new talent in independent film.
That said, a young filmmaker facing the financial and temporal constraints Kerrigan had in making Clean, Shaven cannot help but have their work compromised. The plot is very minimalist, and it would have been intriguing to have Peter come into contact with more people. And much of the supporting cast seems like they were recruited from a group of good-natured locals who had little or no acting experience (this was and still is the only film Robert Allen ever appeared in). Even Greene relies a bit too heavily on twitches and grimaces, though his performance is still authentic and powerful. Ultimately, Clean, Shaven is an intriguing work that shows great potential—which was realized in 2005's similarly themed Keane.
One of the advantages of buying a Criterion DVD is the near certainty that you will be getting a quality product. Though the sound quality and picture clarity of Clean, Shaven is compromised by a miniscule budget, Criterion has had Kerrigan himself supervise this new digital transfer to DVD, so I'm pretty confident this is about as good a presentation as the film is going to get. Steven Soderbergh (Traffic), a great filmmaker in his own right, shows himself a competent interviewer on the film's commentary track. His discussion with Kerrigan is mostly centered on the burdens of making a feature film for $60,000, and is a great tutorial for any budding filmmakers out there. Also, as someone who admires his incredibly dark work, I was very curious to discover what kind of personality Kerrigan has (he broods a bit, but laughs a lot as well). "A Subjective Assault" is a very learned video essay from film critic Michael Atkins that deconstructs the modes and methods Kerrigan uses to achieve an unorthodox, non-linear narrative that successfully replicates the mental state of schizophrenia.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Perhaps my opinion has been compromised by watching Kerrigan's 2005 film, Keane, before Clean, Shaven. Keane is about a young schizophrenic man searching for his missing daughter throughout the metropolitan New York area. Sound familiar? In the intervening 10 years, Kerrigan's skills as a filmmaker greatly improved and—as good as Peter Greene is in Clean, Shaven—Damian Lewis as the titular Keane gives one of the best performances I have ever seen. Like how Evil Dead seems to almost serve as a rough draft for the superior Evil Dead 2, for those who have already seen Keane, Clean, Shaven may seem more like a curio than a wholly independent feature.
Clean, Shaven may not rank as high as the best of the highly uncomfortable films of the modern cinematic era, such as: Scorcese's The King of Comedy, Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream, or Kerrigan's own Keane (I'm sure I'm leaving a lot out, but these are three of my favorites). Still, it is a lurid and effective portrayal of a paranoid mental state that I hope most of us have never experienced.
Guilty of ruining the mood on my date, but still a worthy piece of filmmaking. You're free to go.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary Featuring Steven Soderbergh Interviewing Lodge Kerrigan
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