In Loco Parentis

Clean, Shaven is one of those rare movies whose visual style makes it work. It's an almost unbearably jittery picture of a man going nuts. No character speaks a word of dialogue for the first 10 minutes, and the wretched protagonist, Peter Winter (Peter Greene), isn't heard from until 10 minutes after that.

It doesn't matter. Clean, Shaven would be just as unnervingly effective if it were a silent movie, because Greene's twitchy, sweaty, tormented face tells the whole story. He's a man being eaten alive by his phantom demons, and filmmaker Lodge Kerrigan (who wrote, directed, and produced) has an unerring knack for filling the screen with subtly off-center images that build in grotesqueness. He almost never shoots human faces straight on, in their entirety; instead he uses close-ups of a half-face — an eye, part of a nose, a mouth moving in the flat delivery of banal dialogue — or reflections of faces in rearview mirrors or car windows.

Much of the movie's first 10 minutes, in which Peter leaves the mental institution where he's been staying, is shot from inside a car, and virtually every image is cramped by the steel frame of a car window. The camera stares up blankly at power lines running alongside the road, and the effect is shiveringly claustrophobic. Glimpses of Peter's face reveal a hunted look, but he's not being hunted; his eyes are those of a deer paralyzed by a set of oncoming headlights, but there are no headlights.

It's not clear whether Peter is escaping from the institution or has been released from it. But it is clear that he's on the move — not just away from the hospital but toward his young daughter, Nicole (Jennifer MacDonald), who lives with her adoptive mother, Melinda (Molly Castelloe), in a small town. Nicole is a grave, plain girl of 8 who knows enough about her life to know that it's a very strange life indeed. But it's the only life she has lived, and when she tells Melinda, “You're not my mother. My mother's dead,” she seems to be reporting the facts as she understands them, not making an accusation.

The death of Nicole's mother is a mystery the movie doesn't probe. Also a mystery is the death of a little, Nicole-like girl (Agathe Leclerc), who's found beaten bloody along a road near the town. The girl's murder makes no sense, and there's no direct connection between Peter and her, but simply through the editing of images, the movie raises the implication that he did it: body in the dust; Peter's battered Seville careening madly down a dirt road; Peter mopping his sweaty brow, his glazed eyes darting fearfully in every direction. He looks and acts like a serial child killer, and he becomes the prime suspect in an investigation conducted by Detective McNally (Robert Albert).

The movie's recurrent scenes of Peter's self-mutilation — one of which is so graphic as to be all but unwatchable — suggest that he's no stranger to knives, blood, and the rending of flesh. He's forever feeling his scalp, pulling at it and even sticking the point of a knife into it; only toward the end of the film does he confide to Nicole that a radio receiver and transmitter have been implanted in him. She wears an impassive expression as he relays this information, and because she knows he's her father she might even believe him. But it's clear he's hallucinating — seeing things, and hearing them, too. The movie's soundtrack is the soundtrack of his mind, an eerie fugue of mournful, metallic chants and wails, and the scratchy voices of a badly tuned AM radio.

Peter's reunion with his daughter would send the average parent running to the phone to dial 911. He has literally stalked the town looking for her. When he finally spots her with Melinda, leaving the house where his elderly mother, Gladys (Megan Owen), lives alone, he follows her home and approaches her from the woods as she sits in her swing. He squats before her as if to offer her a piece of candy (a clichŽ the movie avoids). It's the kind of innocuous-looking social encounter that too often leads to little girls' photographs being printed on the sides of milk cartons.

But Peter is not a kidnapper, or not simply a kidnapper. He establishes Nicole's interest in a trip to the beach, and they get into his car.

“You don't have a very nice car,” she observes tartly. And he doesn't. He has bashed out half the windows to eliminate his reflection in them; he has taped over the rearview and side mirrors for the same reason. But the car runs, and they drive off — unaware that Detective McNally is right behind them.

The movie's ending is as depressing as everything that's gone before, and if it seems predictable, it also perfects the shapeliness of the horror. Peter is neither hero nor villain; he's merely the eye of a storm of human joylessness and desperation. As he moves along his erratic course, he traces a pattern of destruction and dislocation that finally includes him.

Does he have a death wish? It's hard to imagine that he doesn't. Living is more than just a burden to him; it's actively painful. He experiences his psychic misery as physical discomfort; he's like a man whose skin is too tight and who is always squirming to adjust it. But of course he can't, because like his skin, his psychosis is a part of him, something he's condemned to live with.

Clean, Shaven is a brilliant exercise, but its unrelieved grimness and head-spinning disorientation make it seem longer than its running time of 80 minutes. The film wants real characters, drawn in the round; the brief, bright connection that flares between Peter and his daughter near the end of the story illuminates, among other things, how little human contact there is in the rest of the movie. Apart from Peter, the cast is a poker-faced lot who unmemorably utter unmemorable lines — quite like real life, but not satisfying.

Lodge Kerrigan's virtues as a filmmaker are broad and substantial. He understands how to use visual images in exploring character, and his eye for depravity is unblinking. He needs a bigger subject — one that will yield a movie as rich in images as Clean, Shaven, and richer in human empathy.

Clean, Shaven
is screening
at the Red Vic
in S.F.
through Sept. 26.

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