Judge Clark Douglas has a female alter ego named Judge Clark Douglas.
If only he knew what she was doing.
"She's not the boss of me!"
Facts of the Case
John Skillpa (Cillian Murphy, Sunshine) is a quiet, reclusive man living in Peacock, Nebraska, during the 1950s. Most people in Peacock know who John is, but they're all pretty curious about what sort of life he leads when he isn't working at the local bank. He's just so quiet and shy; he won't say much of anything to anyone. One day, a train flies off the rails and crashes in John's yard. A woman happens to be in the yard at the time, and she quickly runs into the house when people start running up to survey the accident. A handful of people assume that this is John's never-before-seen wife. What they don't know is that the woman was actually John himself…or rather, his alternate personality. Her name is Emma, an equally shy and quiet woman largely modeled after John's late mother. When John switches from one personality to the other, the one he leaves behind remains unconscious of what is going on with the other one. As time passes and more people grow curious about the relationship between John and the mysterious woman in his house, the personalities begin to clash. John wants to continue hiding and keeping to himself, but Emma secretly yearns to be a liberated woman. Which side will prevail in this inner conflict?
Shortly before reviewing Peacock, I reviewed an underwhelming Russell Crowe film called Tenderness (which had received a very brief theatrical release before heading to DVD). In that review I wrote, "The general rule of thumb is that one should avoid new movies featuring big stars that receive absolutely no press whatsoever." Well, it wouldn't just be a general rule of thumb if there weren't exceptions, and it would seem that Peacock is one such exception. In addition to Cillian Murphy, the cast includes the likes of Ellen Page (Juno), Susan Sarandon (Little Women), Bill Pullman (Independence Day), Keith Carradine (Deadwood), and Josh Lucas (Stealth). For some reason, the film is being released straight-to-DVD. That's too bad, because Peacock is an ambitious film that deserves a look.
In the making-of featurette, it's said that several big-name actors interested in playing the part of John/Emma were dismissed in favor of going with the less popular Murphy. "He was the only one we felt could play the role," one producer says. It's certainly easy to see why, as Murphy tackles this remarkably complex and challenging role without missing a beat. The film makes no attempt to fool the audience into thinking that John and Emma are two separate individuals; the film opens with a scene in which Emma takes off her dress, puts on some pants, wipes off her makeup and transforms into John. What's remarkable is that Murphy is so convincing in both roles. Half the battle is won due to Murphy's somewhat androgynous physical appearance; with a few subtle makeup touches he looks as convincing as a woman as he does as a man. The other half is won by Murphy's acting, which makes both John and Emma complete distinct personalities while also providing small touches to remind us that they both exist within the same body.
The Psycho-inspired concept could have easily served as the premise for a cheap and silly psychological thriller, but the makers of Peacock approach the idea with as much reality as possible. They only ask us to accept that A) a man would create such an alter ego in the wake of his mother's death (which is plausible due to the fact that such things have actually happened), and B) that no one in the town of Peacock would notice that John and Emma are the same person (slightly less plausible, but easier to swallow given that it's the '50s and people aren't as likely to wonder if a woman is actually a man). If you can buy these elements (I could, but then I'm also okay with the whole Clark Kent/Superman thing), you'll be rewarded with a film that explores an intriguing idea in a complex and surprising manner.
We can never quite figure out where exactly Peacock is going at any given time, because it's a film that defies easy description and doesn't follow a formulaic path. Everywhere it does go makes perfect sense in retrospect, but the film will certainly shatter the preconceived notions of many. The conclusion it reaches is less cathartic than one might hope for, offering no easy answers or real resolution, but a more conventional conclusion probably would have rung false. Again, I can easily see how the film could have been tweaked into a more mainstream thriller (one which probably would have gotten a theatrical release), but I'm selfishly thankful that Peacock stays true to itself all the way to the finish.
As for the acting, let it be said that Murphy pretty much owns the film and everyone else sort of fades out of the spotlight when forced to share the screen with him. Susan Sarandon and Ellen Page are very fine actresses (and they're doing good work in this film), but Murphy's presence is so strong that the other cast members are more or less relegated to observing him with a blend of pity, fascination, curiosity and frustration. Even Bill Pullman's very weird turn as John's anal-retentive supervisor comes across as flat-out ordinary in contrast to Murphy's work. Give-and-take is a large part of acting, but for the sake of this film pretty much everyone else is giving and Murphy is taking.
The DVD is blessed with a very strong transfer, which is a blessing given the film's very cinematic nature. There are a lot of memorable shots that nicely accentuate the film's period setting, and the transfer's excellent detail and strong depth aid these moments considerably. A few darker scene do tend to get just a bit murky, but for the most part the film looks very strong. Audio is solid through, though this is a pretty low-key track that doesn't really rear its head very often (save for one piece of mostly-gentle music that offers a few room-shaking bass notes…huh). Supplements include an alternate ending (a bit more vague than the actual ending but not better, I don't think), 3 minutes of Cillian Murphy rehearsal scenes, a 20-minute making-of featurette and a handful of deleted scenes. Oh, and as a DVD-Rom feature you get the complete script. Wow, haven't seen many of the old DVD-Rom features lately.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
While this isn't a criticism, it must be admitted the film takes a while to get going, so some viewers may get bored or lose interest before the film really starts digging into some dramatically compelling territory. In addition, viewers will need to be observant to pick up on some of what's going on, as there are aspects of John's psychological condition that can be figured out but which are not explicitly explained (a virtue as far as I'm concerned). Peacock is a very good film, but it requires a good deal of patience and attention.
Don't let this strong little film slip away; it deserves a rental at the very least. Murphy's knockout performance is one of the best of his career and it's contained within a worthy, ambitious film. Recommended.
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Scales of Justice
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