Of Two Minds: Dissociating Ourselves from “Raising Cain”

Raising Cain Raising Cain

In anticipation of M. Night Shyamalan’s Glass, two writers go back and forth on the style and politics of Brian De Palma’s multiple-personality thriller Raising Cain.

This piece was originally posted on Alcohollywood

(To fit the split-personality nature of the piece, Gena’s words are in standard font; Chris Ludovici‘s in italics.)

January 18th marks the release of Glass, the follow up to 2017’s Split, a surprise (and extremely belated) sequel to Unbreakable. In Split, M. Night Shyamalan revived the mostly dead “split personality” trope, averting criticism mostly by going so far over the top with it that a new top had to be constructed so he could go over that one as well. James McAvoy, selling the hell out of a really silly premise, plays Kevin Wendell Crumb, a man struggling with 23 separate personalities, ranging from a little boy to a teenage girl to a middle-aged English nanny to something called “The Beast,” a cannibal who crushes a woman to death with his bare hands. The twist (it being a Shyamalan movie and all) is that Crumb is superhuman, his physiology changing from one personality to the next, and at the end of the film he’s set up as a villain against Unbreakable’s hero David Dunn, and a tool of manipulation for Dunn’s nemesis, Mr. Glass.

If not set apart by the fact that McAvoy more or less plays an evil Hulk in it, Split would be one of many times Hollywood has taken a rather cavalier approach to dissociative identity disorder, formerly “multiple personality disorder,” then “split personality disorder” before that. You’d think that, given how often DID has been a driving factor in movies, particularly thrillers and horror films, it’s a common personality disorder. In fact, it’s the least common, affecting 2% of the population of North America and Europe combined. You’ll probably go your entire life without ever encountering someone who has it, but you have definitely seen a whole bunch of movies about it, all of them relying on well-trod stereotypes.

Brian De Palma dipped from the split personality well, and characters struggling with their “good” and “bad” sides, in a number of his films, including Sisters, Dressed to Kill, and 1992’s largely forgotten Raising Cain. Like McAvoy in Split, John Lithgow really gives his all in an utterly absurd movie, putting blood, sweat, and tears into his role as Carter Nix, a child psychologist who, seemingly out of the blue, decides to kill one of his female friends. Even by first time murderer standards, he’s pretty clumsy, knocking his would-be victim out in broad daylight while their small children are dozing mere feet away. Luckily, his twin brother, Cain, wearing Eurotrash henchman sunglasses and leather, just happens to be passing by, and with a malevolent smirk, sends Carter away so he can finish what he started.

It’s not a spoiler to reveal that Cain, of course, isn’t real, he’s a separate personality, the id to Carter’s ego. We eventually learn through a nearly four-minute long exposition scene that his father (also played by Lithgow), a disgraced expert in child psychology, traumatized young Carter specifically so that he would develop alternate personalities, and, like Split, once you realize that this movie isn’t trying to be a realistic rendition of DID, it makes it a bit easier to take. Cain shows up as needed to help a reluctant Carter murder women and kidnap their children, under orders from Carter’s father, even though he’s believed to be dead. It’s not entirely clear what Nix Sr. plans to do with the children – perhaps start a show called Jim Henson’s Split Personality Babies – but when Daddy calls, Carter answers, even if he hates to do it.

Brian De Palma’s movies aren’t about sense, they’re about emotions. His movies are visually opulent and voyeuristic, they’re about watching people do things, and what they do is betray one another. From his personal passion projects to his massive studio blockbusters the issue of trust and how it’s impossible appears again and again.

You can’t trust institutions in De Palma films. The rule of law is either hopelessly corrupt like in
Blow Out or inept and hypocritical like in The Bonfire of the Vanities, Carrie showed us what
De Palma thinks of both mothers and school and adolescents, what is Mission: Impossible but a story of a family disintegrating while a man comes to terms with his surrogate father’s betrayal and his attraction to his surrogate mother? Snake Eyes is about a bent police officer wading into corruption and betrayal at the hands of his surrogate war-hero brother at a fixed boxing match. At the end of The Untouchables, when asked what he would do if prohibition was repealed, Elliot Ness, the crusading cop who’d killed a half a dozen men in his quest to uphold the law, says “I think I’d have a drink.”

Meanwhile, in the B plot, Carter’s wife, Jenny (Lolita Davidovich), is somehow unaware that he’s been struggling with multiple personalities, some of which cause him to do dreadful things. She reconnects with an old lover, Jack (Steven Bauer), and almost immediately (like, an hour later) enters into an affair with him. Or maybe not, it’s hard to tell because this movie sandwiches one dream sequence between another between another, with a healthy layer of symbolism (such as Jenny getting impaled on a long, thick spear). For a straightforward premise, this subplot is nearly incomprehensible at times, and occasionally feels like it’s happening in a different, unrelated movie. Promotional materials suggested that Jenny’s one day affair (if she’s actually having one) is what drives Carter over the edge, but he’s already gone over that edge barely five minutes into the movie, before Jenny even runs into Jack. It seems to exist mostly because women in Brian De Palma movies are often faithless and untrustworthy, relishing the opportunity to humiliate the men in their lives.

It’s rare to find a movie that would benefit from being longer, but Raising Cain could have used another twenty or even thirty minutes. It’s edited down to within an inch of its life so that the entire plot confusingly feels like it takes place on the same day. Key elements are explained rather than shown, and the characters are thinly drawn, verging on stereotypes — the wisecracking cops, the concerned best friend, the handsome love interest, the German-accented psychiatrist. Jenny is an aggressively off-putting “heroine,” and all we really know about her is that she’s a doctor who had an affair with a dying patient’s husband, kissing him right in the hospital room. We don’t even really know much about Carter, other than he has multiple personalities, and is hyper-focused on his young daughter, in a way that could be unhealthy, but who can say for sure, because it’s never explored.

There’s a war raging inside of Brian De Palma. As a child he won a regional science fair by building his own computer, he went to college to study physics before being seduced by filmmaking. His best films and sequences have an almost clockwork construction, they’re known for their long uninterrupted takes that suggest fascination but also distance. His movies are often simultaneously horrific and clinical in a way that suggest a bloodless, pitiless scientist running rats through a lethal maze.

But that intelligent, scientifically minded child had a chaotic home. His father (a respected Philadelphia doctor) was a serial adulterer and the young De Palma followed him around and photograph him with various women, he even created a time-lapse camera so that he could stake various locations out without being there. Once, he threatened his father with a knife after ambushing him and one of his conquests at his office.

That tension between the thoughtful intellectual and the furious adolescent is the fuel that makes De Palma’s work go. And it changes the purpose of detached distance that he also seems to take from his subjects too. Maybe he doesn’t hold his subjects at arm’s length because he doesn’t care about what happens to them; maybe it’s because he doesn’t trust what he would do if he got too close.

At their core, his DID movies are about how, at the end of the day, we also can’t really trust ourselves. We might think we’re better and more knowledgeable than the people around us, but we’re not even safe from ourselves. There are no safe places in Brian De Palma’s world – not even inside our own minds.

Still, it can’t be emphasized enough that John Lithgow makes a feast of his roles, playing sinister, sympathetic, campy, and compelling all at the same time. The scenes when Carter’s “twin” Cain mocks him are both funny and tragic, in a “Gollum looking at himself in the water” way. De Palma’s love of Hitchcock-style imagery serves this movie particularly well, a good reminder that you’re not watching anything that’s supposed to be a realistic depiction of DID. Raising Cain isn’t a bad movie, it’s just confounding, an interesting premise that needed more structure, and more fleshing out.

And, as it turns out, there’s a twist in the making of the movie itself.

The strange pacing and editing were a last-minute decision for De Palma after the original cut tested poorly with audiences. Why anyone thought that a psychological thriller would work better if it was harder to follow is unknown, but that’s how it was released, much to De Palma’s regret. Twenty years after Raising Cain was released, a filmmaker from the Netherlands, mostly just for the hell of it, recut the film so that it more closely resembled the original script. Nothing was added or taken away, scenes were merely moved around so that the plot was somewhat more linear. The recut got back to De Palma, who was so pleased with it that he petitioned to have it added to the 2016 Blu-Ray release, claiming that it was the way the movie was always meant to be seen.

In the interest of good journalism (and because I had to see if it really did improve whatever the hell is supposed to be happening), I watched the recut, and you know what? It actually works pretty well. It opens with Jenny reconnecting with Jack, and her bizarre excitement over the prospect of cheating on her husband, which is reminiscent of Dressed to Kill, though she doesn’t pay for it in quite so gruesome a fashion as Angie Dickinson does in the earlier movie. The gauzily lit, soap operatic “lovers reunited” plot ends with a flashback of Jack’s terminally ill wife seeing them kiss and literally dying instantly, providing a delightfully effective bridge from romantic melodrama to psychological thriller.

After about the 45-minute mark, the “director’s cut” more or less follows the theatrical cut. While the movie still, in the end, doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, it no longer quite feels like being thrown into the deep end of a pool without a life preserver. Not having to focus so much on trying to figure out what’s happening (it’s safe to assume that probably about 45% of it is only occurring in Carter’s fractured mind) allows plenty of opportunity to really see just how great John Lithgow is. He’s not just sad and a little scary, he’s hilarious, abruptly changing his facial expressions from “evil” to “innocent” in some scenes like he’s a human Looney Tunes character. It’s obviously an intentional choice, and even better when compared to how straight all the other actors play their roles. Lithgow is at his best when playing perhaps the most dangerous personality, “Margo,” who says nothing, smiles sweetly, and headbutts old ladies; regrettably she doesn’t show up until the last fifteen minutes of the movie. If Raising Cain still feels too short, it’s simply because we don’t get enough of Lithgow taking a potentially touchy subject matter and brilliantly, gleefully, riding it into camp oblivion.

It’s easy to see Dressed to Kill and Raising Cain as companion pieces. Beyond both being movies about DID they also feature infidelity, duplicitous therapists, and one of the DID personalities being a woman, De Palma even reuses a gag where a pair of shoes poking out of a doorframe hinting at someone’s location in the climax. It’s like the two movies are in conversation with one another, trying to figure something primal out about desire, rage, violence, trust, and relationships.  

In Dressed to Kill the young protagonist solves the murder of his mother by stalking and photographing her deranged murderous doctor, just as De Palma stalked and photographed his own doctor father who may not have murdered his mother, but who certainly caused her significant pain and tore his homelife apart. In Raising Cain, the protagonist is the child of a doctor, driven and broken by his father’s failures. And just like with Dressed to Kill, there’s more than a little autobiography in Raising Cain, De Palma got the seed of the idea for Cain when he was having a relationship with a married woman and wondered what would happen if he just let her keep sleeping in their hotel room after a mid-day rendezvous instead of waking her up so that she could return to her life with her family.   

For De Palma, his DID movies are maybe more personal than maybe any other he’s made. They draw from his own experiences and his life as both an adult and child in direct and honest ways, the clearest examination of the war within himself.

It’s also worth noticing that the Brian De Palma who made Dressed to Kill was childless, and he put himself into the determined and morally pure son, diligently chasing down the killer of his mother. But in by the time Raising Cain came around, DePalma was older, more experienced and was a father himself – this time, he split his surrogates into the much more morally ambiguous unfaithful wife and the DID killer himself. While the murderous doctor is apprehended in both films, in Cain the killer remains at large, having perhaps finally settled into the nurturing, mothering female personality, forever watching over her young child.

Whether this is any kind of proof that De Palma has managed to curtail his demons and to live for something outside of himself or not, it’s interesting that he never again returned to DID plotlines in his work. Maybe he was finally able to quiet those other voices after all.

Liked it? Take a second to support The Spool on Patreon!