When a director begins to cannibalize himself, rehashing the themes, moods, and visual devices that have become his trademark, it’s usually a sign that he has gone creatively bankrupt. The more slavishly he imitates his own work, the more he slips into the muck of self-parody. But what do you say when a gifted director cannibalizes himself on purpose, reveling in his most notorious excesses, transforming his own shamelessness into the basis of a joshing and ardently trashy style? And what if the very gimmicks he’s recycling have already been swiped from an earlier — and extremely famous — source?
In the lurid and gonzo Raising Cain, writer-director Brian De Palma doesn’t just rip off Alfred Hitchcock. He rips off himself ripping off Hitchcock: He rides over the top of self-parody into a kind of loony-tunes reflexivity. The movie, a defiantly nonsensical thriller centering on a child psychologist (John Lithgow) with a murderous split personality, might have been designed to infuriate and one-up De Palma’s detractors. It takes to demented, satirical extremes everything in his work that they complain about: the wooden acting, the Harlequin romanticism that’s so purple it’s a joke, the nutty pulp plotting that seems to fold in on itself. Is Raising Cain a good movie? No way. You could almost say it’s intentionally bad — a gleeful piece of jerry-built schlock. Yet De Palma’s naughty-boy gamesmanship has a perverse fascination, even when it doesn’t work (which is most of the time).
Near the end, there’s a scene on a motel balcony that features the following elements: a schizoid psychopath who has disguised himself in a skirt and wig; an elevator; a baby carriage whose innocent occupant appears headed for disaster; and an abundance of ”ominous” gliding camera work. If the transvestite psycho seems a tad familiar, that’s because De Palma used the same gimmick in Dressed to Kill, lifting it, of course, from Hitchcock’s Psycho. Ditto the elevator (a variation on the Psycho shower). As for the baby carriage, it’s a cheeky reference to the baby-carriage-on-the-steps scene in De Palma’s The Untouchables (which he, uh…borrowed from the Soviet classic Battleship Potemkin).
You don’t need to know any of this to watch Raising Cain. Yet what’s striking about the scene is that its various elements — killer, baby carriage, camera movement — have almost no dramatic weight outside of their status as pop exhibits in the Brian De Palma Fun House. De Palma’s virtuosity exists in a void. You get the feeling the scene is there simply because he wanted to film it.
For a while, De Palma seems in control. The first half of Raising Cain has wit and invention — it’s a pleasurable pileup of thriller fantasies. In an entertaining stunt, Lithgow plays multiple roles, sometimes in the same scene. He’s Carter Nix, the sad-sack psychologist who has taken several years off to be a househusband and raise his beloved daughter; Carter’s badass ”brother,” Cain, a cackling, derisive stud in leather and shades; and their evil father, whose ancient experiments hold the key to Carter’s mysterious nature. As always with De Palma, the catalyst for mayhem is lust: Carter’s wife, the beautiful Jenny (Lolita Davidovich), is gradually drawn back to a love affair from the past. In a variation on the Angie Dickinson adultery plot in Dressed to Kill, she drifts into a liaison with Jack (Steven Bauer), a waxworks- handsome stud who’s like a parody of a stolid ’50s leading man. De Palma has fun teasing the conventions of gauzy Hollywood romanticism. He stages a superb flashback in a hospital — for a few giddy moments, we’re torn between hilarity and dread.
Except that the atmosphere of ripe campiness also shuts us out of the movie. Who is the audience supposed to be identifying with here? Hitchcock’s films had strong points of view, but De Palma, in his robotic inflation of Hitchcock, mocks everyone, so it’s never quite established whose eyes we’re looking through. As it turns out, this is merely the setup for a supreme act of directorial arrogance: De Palma, in his 14,673rd homage to Psycho, appears to kill off a key character, and then, with almost no explanation, he brings the character back. The movie never quite recovers from this bizarre gambit. It’s not the sleight-of-hand twist that’s objectionable. It’s the fact that the character barely displays any human reaction to having nearly been murdered.
From this point on, Raising Cain devolves into an anonymous thriller exercise. Lithgow has one staggering scene: After getting arrested, he sets up an escape by pretending to confess his inner torment to a psychologist (Frances Sternhagen). The actor is so sweaty and twisted he’s mesmerizing, even as he cues you to see it’s all a put-on. At the same time, the effectiveness of the scene is undercut by De Palma’s blunderbuss staging: Carter is being held for murder with barely a cop in sight.
There’s a defensive undercurrent to Raising Cain. On some level, De Palma is saying, ”Hitchcock got away with loopholes, contrivances — well, so can I!” Except that Hitchcock’s films, even at their most fanciful (North by Northwest), had a dense and convincing surface reality. De Palma, pretender to the Hitchcock throne, just shoots the works — when he gets rolling, his films are nothing but loopholes. He doesn’t know how to manipulate an audience without revealing his contempt for it.