Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema and the filmmaker’s own biography. For June, we celebrate the birthday (and the sensitive, insightful eye) of Gus Van Sant. Read the rest of our coverage here.
Some remakes are more difficult than others to treat as their own independent works. Gus Van Sant’s near-shot-for-shot take on Psycho, however, takes difficult to a whole new level, as it basically exists only for one to compare and contrast to the original. Does the remake raise any questions? Yes. The question it begs, though, is a bit boring.
Is the original better than the 1998 version? Yes, absolutely, without question. Even if Quentin Tarantino tries to tell you otherwise, the original’s superiority cannot be denied. What’s more interesting, however, is the ways in which this remake fails to match the original.
The first issue arises with Van Sant’s decision to move the film forward to the (then) present day. Psycho does take the time to alter monetarily related features: Marion Crane (Anne Heche) steals 100 times as much money, a night at the Bates Motel costs more, and so on. However, it makes the more anachronistic aspects stand out in starker relief.
In particular, there are the sexual politics of the movie. The handwringing about Marion’s relationship with Sam Loomis (Viggo Mortensen) and the atmosphere of her workplace don’t feel updated in the least. Yes, there still existed—and exists—cultural conservativism that might look down on Sam and Marion’s affair. Yes, women no doubt did—and still do—endure the kind of blatant objectification that Marion endures from Tom Cassidy (Chad Everett). However, the way in which the film colludes with those opinions and actions feels remarkably out of date. When one considers the messages of Van Sant’s previous films, that presentation feels even more bizarre.
In other cases, the performers create the anachronism themselves. As private investigator Milton Arbogast, for example, William H. Macy chooses to more or less ape the beats of the original. He can’t help but put himself into the performance, giving the dialogue a more Mamet-like film every time he’s the one speaking the lines.Still, it’s close enough that, in the context of 1998, it reads onscreen like Arbogast is less a real detective and more an enthusiast who’s taken cosplay beyond a reasonable level.
The original was a screw tightener, one that injected suspense into almost every moment… This Psycho, on the other hand, feels hermetically sealed.
Dated attitudes and performances, however, are not to blame for the film’s tone. The original was a screw tightener, one that injected suspense into almost every moment after Marion liberates Cassidy’s money from her employer. This Psycho, on the other hand, feels hermetically sealed. It’s as though Van Sant’s zeal to recreate the original blocked out his attention to anything else. He’s built a clockwork world where every shot, every blocking, is precise. He just had to sacrifice any sense of spontaneity, chemistry, and terror to do it. Not even Danny Elfman and Steve Bartek’s (Oingo Boingo fans of the world unite) orchestration of the classic Bernard Herrmann can make the heart race against this backdrop.
To their credit, neither lead comes across as bloodless interpretations or cosplay recreations of their predecessors. Heche makes Marion a stranger figure than in the original. A bit meaner, a bit angrier, and definitely jumpier, her Marion is prickly in a way Janet Leigh never managed. Julianne Moore, be it through happy accident or actor’s choice, picks up on that vibe as well. Her Lila Crane is more aggressive, more intense.
As interesting as the sisters are, Norman Bates is the main attraction. While Vince Vaughn was going through a pursuit of seriousness at the time, his casting was still met with skepticism. The skepticism turns out to be true, but his work is not without merit. It just isn’t a good fit for Norman—or Psycho itself.
The thing with Norman is that the movie depends on him being so achingly average that that becomes unnerving. Vaughn simply cannot manage that. Instead, he creates a Bates that vacillates between a sort of sly menace and an almost childlike guilelessness. Given the dissociative identities Bates contains, one might try to argue this is intentional. Perhaps it even is. However, both those sides are front facing.
The craftiness is not just a secret between Vaughn and the audience; he shows it to other characters. It doesn’t break the movie, per se, but it does undermine how the others treat Norman. While no one seeing Anthony Perkins coming makes perfect sense, the idea that Vaughn’s Norman isn’t viewed with immediate suspicion is impossible to swallow.
Vaughn and Heche do hint at a possibility of a workable Psycho remake. If Van Sant sought to engage the movie not as some kind of film school exercise but a new version with his style and empathy, the two could have been effective players in that effort. Constrained by technical pursuits, out of date attitudes, and other actors working in a far different direction, though, they did little more than seal this Psycho’s ultimate fate.