KEYHOLE

Guy Maddin’s latest could’ve just have easily been titled PORTAL or VORTEX; I’ve watched it three times and I’m still trying to make sense of it. I can tell you that it centers on Ulysses Pick (Jason Patric), a fugitive criminal who, with his motley gang in tow, returns to the family home after a long absence. His objective? To find estranged wife Hyacinth (Isabella Rossellini), who lies in wait in their upstairs bedroom. It sounds like a straightforward task until you consider that the house, ordinary on the surface, spatially appears as a seemingly endless labyrinth where memories and dreams converge and overlap. From one murky corridor to another, we witness screaming ghosts, mysterious shadows forever gliding across the walls and random oddities like a ramshackle, bicycle-powered electric chair.

None of this should seem outlandish to anyone familiar with Maddin’s oeuvre. However, in addition to an ever-convoluted narrative and the usual black-and-white cinematography, he has thrown in a few new wrinkles. Stylistically, instead of the usual recreation of late-silent/early-sound cinema, he’s essentially crossed a film noir with a RKO horror flick (and a soundtrack to match). The sustained tone, while still containing flashes of macabre humor, is altogether more serious (if not at all somber). Patric’s presence also brings a new dynamic to the proceedings: although he meshes well with a typically eccentric Maddin ensemble (including both Kevin McDonald and Udo Kier!), his hard-boiled but nuanced and shrewd performance comes closest to giving the film a desperately needed center.

But how to explain the naked old man chained to Hyacinth’s bed (actually her father)? Or the bound-and-gagged young man and teen-aged girl (who recently drowned but seems alive, if not altogether well) that Pick holds captive and drags with him throughout the house? KEYHOLE piles one illusion on top of another memory on top of another apparition until it’s damn near impossible to keep up, or keep from giving up on the plot. One could argue that narrative cohesion isn’t the goal here, but often Pick seems like a mere stand-in for Maddin as he sifts through a collective unconscious of motifs stemming from personal interests and other things that amuse him.

Coming after an impressive run comprising Maddin’s most accessible (THE SADDEST MUSIC IN THE WORLD), personal (MY WINNIPEG) and arguably original (BRAND UPON THE BRAIN!) works, KEYHOLE feels frustratingly transitional. Some may think all he’s doing here is further burrowing down his own rabbit hole, but the film also suggests a number of intriguing new directions the director could (and should) explore going forward. Perhaps it’s best for fans to view it as a few more pieces of a far-from-completed puzzle.  Grade: B

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