The double-role has been a favorite for movie audiences for a long time. Actors as different as Lon Chaney and Ronald Colman have indulged in the two-actors-for-the-price-of-one roles. In The Dark Knight, Aaron Eckhart will get to do a two-fer, playing a character who didn't get nearly enough to do in that Joel Schumacher fiasco. (Though I did very much enjoy the bifurcated Tommy Lee Jones' use of the pluralis majestatis, the royal "we.") Few double-roles, however, are as roundly a good time as Brian De Palma's Raising Cain, a reviled but rich melodrama derived in equal parts from Psycho and the equally scandalous Peeping Tom. Preposterous, invigoratingly silly, and done to a technical turn by Hitchcock's most devoted fan, this forgotten thriller gives John Lithgow -- kindly actor and easy-going TV star of Third Rock from the Sun --a chance to show his hulking, evil side.
In De Palma's lens, the extravagantly rich California city of Palo Alto, thinly disguised as "Bay View," is one big nursery. Rolling baby-carriages keep crossing the screen, and almost every luxury car has a toddler seat in it. Key parts of the action take place in a toddler's park where the parents bring their children. A fixture at this park is the plump-faced, tweedy, kindly pediatrician Dr. Carter Nix (Lithgow), who brings his own child there. Anxieties bubble under his calm surface; he's purchased a closed circuit camera to watch his own child sleep. He spends more time with the kid than he does with his restless wife Jenny (Lolita Davidovich). Worse, Jenny runs into an old lover, Jack Dante (Steven Bauer) at the mall. Flustered by the encounter, Jack leaves his hotel keys behind, giving Jenny an excuse for a further visit.
A sort of family reunion is bothering Carter, anyway. It seems that his father, the fearsome Norwegian behavioral psychologist Dr. Nix, has turned up. He'd been presumed dead after "taking a swan dive into a fee-yord," as a local cop (Tom Bower) puts it. And the old man (also played, richly, by Lithgow) has plans to restart the same evil experiments in child rearing which blighted Carter's childhood. The old doctor is probably based on the urban legend that psychologist B. F. Skinner raised his daughter in a cage, but Raising Cain is more like an unofficial sequel to Peeping Tom. The insane father-physician who dominated his scopophiliac son (Karl-Heinz Bohm) through constant filming and observation in that Michael Powell movie, must have been in a similar field to the insane old Norseman.
Now back in action, old Dr. Nix requires kidnapped children. Carter is too weak to do the requisite seizing and chloroforming, which is why it's a good thing his evil twin brother Cain (Lithgow once more) has materialized; a smirking thug in sunglasses who knows all the methods of kidnapping, disposing of bodies and lying to the authorities. Children and the moms start to disappear.
The police are, we may say, total tools in Raising Cain. If Hitchcock's famous comment about his plot development "No one goes to the police because it would be boring," De Palma could add, "no one goes to the police, because they're asleep." Delivering wisecracks and dozing at their desks, the local cops are only forced into action when a retired copper (Barton Heyman) turns up, remembering a similar case from 20 years ago. The elderly cop retrieves the old Doctor Nix's Transylvanian colleague Dr. Waldheim (Frances Sternhagen), who gets to grill Carter and try to probe his secrets. And the delightful, even Almodovaresque absurdity continues. I mean, isn't it a happy thing when you name one of your twin sons "Cain" and he grows up to be the evil one?
De Palma gives up as much tickles as shocks in this one, leaving the actual tragic scenes of the elder doctor's child abuse for our imagination. As Hitchcock said, some want slices of life, and some want slices of cake, and this is pure cake. Instead of pathos, we get the carousel-like wheeling of a flash-forward montage as Jenny imagines, or remembers, or dreams up, a roll in the dead leaves with Jack. How Jenny and Jack met is also rather sweet: we see the flashback of a love scene in a hospital room, punctuated by the horrified reaction of a witness. De Palma tops one of his typically ambitious tracking shots with the invigorating whipping back a sheet off a corpse's face. ("She must have died of horror!" is the warm up...or words so close to that effect that it doesn't merit looking up the exact words.)
In front of the San Francisco Legion of Honor museum, De Palma took an existing statue of Joan of Arc and made up a new one in the charge position, lance lethally pointed forward. The auteur even tops Hitchcock in a gruesome image straight from Psycho, a car swallowed up into a murky oatmeal-colored swamp; this time, the corpse in the trunk revives. The finale is another moment of inspiration, staged at a storm-drenched El Camino Real motel. There, De Palma syncs up three different groups of actors on three different floors.
The violence is at a bare minimum for this sometimes gory director; he's sort of kid-proofed the movie. Children are menaced, but naturally delivered up safe. (It's not where his interests lie, anyway. But two stolen babies seems to be fending for themselves in the motel during a lot of the action.)
Lithgow has a chance to play not just Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but his father and his sister too. People complain about ham, but they certainly devour a lot of it, and Lithgow's pleasure in getting to pull the various faces is infectious. Raising Cain is a hard film to justify to those who can't stand vast leaps of logic. (No one remembers the Nix case? A mad doctor kidnapping babies in a small city? And they made a TV movie about it, and it's still not a part of the police's collective memory?) There are fastidious viewers who can't handle plot holes and rich Scandinavian stage accents. As I get older, I'm less interested in worrying about "over the top" acting. Who really knows the topography well enough to declare where the top should be? Was Day-Lewis over the top in There Will Be Blood? Or did PT Anderson successfully raise the landscape enough so that his oil gusher-like explosion made perfect sense? Someone needs to cast Paul Dano and Lithgow as father and son...I'm sure Lithgow could bray "Bastard in a basket!" as well as any actor alive.