De Palma’s Raising Cain: Re-cut and Revisited
By Jeremy Carr.
Since the release of Noah Baumbach’s 2015 documentary on Brian De Palma, the legendary filmmaker, who has for decades enjoyed a proud and vocal group of supporters, has become a grand cause célèbre for hip cinephiles eager to look back at even his most widely maligned films and find those oh-so-obvious instances of daring and brilliance. Many of De Palma’s films, which have hitherto been granted scant attention—more often than not, they were greeted with derisive comments about how far the director has fallen—are now being looked at with the newfound appreciation his die-hard fans have always been promoting (though I, as one, still have a hard time expounding the plaudits of Wise Guys ).
Such is the case with Raising Cain (1992), and its unique two-version Blu-ray, courtesy of Shout! Factory, testifies to the power of this re-evaluative tendency. As one of those films admired by the devoted for its overt peculiarity, Raising Cain, as audiences have known it, is not the Raising Cain De Palma intended. Post-production reordering gave the theatrical version of the film a more straightforward narrative, sacrificing some of the screenplay’s disjointed design, altering the perception of its principal protagonist, and swaying the degree of viewer engagement in the process. This discrepancy is the jumping off point for one De Palma aficionado, Peet Gelderblom, who took the film’s original script, loaded the DVD to his computer, and, for the preliminary purposes of fan art, rearranged the film to match De Palma’s more oblique intent. The re-edit found its audience online, then found De Palma himself. This “director’s cut”—not done by the director, but with his blessing—is the result. “It’s what we didn’t accomplish on the initial release of the film,” stated De Palma in the supplementary material of the film. “It’s what I originally wanted the movie to be.” As Gelderblom describes it, this re-cut edition of Raising Cain shows De Palma indulging in what he does best. He is, as Gelderblom comments in a video essay accompanying the Shout! Factory disc, a “formalist at the top of his game, having a ball.”
The primary disparity between the two versions of Raising Cain is the way in which the film gets underway, and the way one first responds to John Lithgow’s Carter Nix and Lolita Davidovich’s Jenny, Carter’s wife. With so much hinging on the beginning of the picture, De Palma wanted to start with the focus on Jenny, rather than Carter, not unlike he did with Angie Dickinson in Dressed to Kill (1980). And like in Dressed to Kill, the viewer’s preliminary association with this female lead would be upended when she is eventually, shockingly, murdered (or so it seems…). The theatrical Raising Cain, on the other hand, quickly shows Carter to be just who he is, a deranged murderer, while the re-cut edition treats Carter as an apparently caring husband who resides on the periphery of what appears to be a story about Jenny and her affair with former flame Jack (Steven Bauer). To start the picture with the depiction of Carter as an obviously raging maniac, as Gelderblom convincingly argues, the spectator is not ready to accept the ostensibly conventional relationship between he and his wife. Knowing Carter’s mental state from the off skews the sensitivity to everything that follows. That said, however, dramatically skewed sensitivities are revealed, continually employed, and are indeed paramount to the Gelderblom version as well.
The opening of the re-cut Raising Cain adopts Jenny’s point of view as she falls into what resembles a fairly typical romance. Out shopping with Carter and their daughter, Amy (Amanda Pombo), Jenny has the chance encounter with Jack. Their reunion sparks a fleeting fling within a soap opera frame and the film itself assumes a correspondingly romantic tone, none of which presumes what the picture ultimately holds in store, tonally or narratively. Carter, who briefly pops in and just as quickly exits the storyline, is described in passing as a “perfect man.” Jenny agrees, although she has concerns about the way he compulsively studies their daughter. This she chalks up to having something to do with his child psychiatrist father and the film moves on. Jenny’s exchanges with Jack are shot in intense close-ups, honing in on their lusty eyes and coy facial expressions; it is a light-touch, passionate intimacy, and for as long as it lasts, Raising Cain takes shape around this lushly melodramatic altercation. Again recalling his treatment of Dickinson, De Palma’s camera stalks along with Jenny as she travels to and from Jack’s hotel room, in a sleuthing series of movements with a trancelike pacing and a whimsical Pino Donaggio score. Jenny’s temptation results in sequences that derive their tension from the illicitness and her guilt-ridden distress, more so than any violent threat.
Beyond this will-she-get-caught apprehension, the anxiety at the start of the re-cut Raising Cain emerges from Jenny’s assorted dream sequences, where something dramatic happens, she wakes up startled, and it then becomes clear it was all in her head. With the first such instance, one is left to initially question where and when it all began (there is no prompting shot of her falling asleep), but even as these types of sequences pile on, the basic reality remains clear. What these dreams—or subliminal fantasies—more importantly suggest is the playfully self-conscious approach with which De Palma entertains Raising Cain. As Jenny drives to Jack’s hotel, she sees an equestrian statue, which De Palma lingers on long enough to signal some sort of relevance. Sure enough, Jenny gets into a car accident on the return trip, the figure’s lance piercing her windshield and her chest. Then she wakes up. It was another dream. De Palma is delighting in not only the manipulation of these fantastical sequences as such—“is this really happening?”—but he simultaneously provokes the viewer by repeatedly going back on what he appears to promise—“that wasn’t what we thought would happen.” So when Jenny wakes up in bed with Carter, who proceeds to kill her (for real this time?), there is some trepidation of believability.
At this point, in the re-cut version of Raising Cain, the film initiates a succession of flashbacks that reveal what Carter had been up to all along. Now, his sweetly affectionate behavior grows intensely unsettling as one knows what lays dormant. But was it, in fact, Carter all along? To raise further doubt and to further frustrate what appeared to be a predictable romance, assaulted by an abrupt murder, Carter is shown to have a malicious twin brother, Cain. Donned in a black leather jacket with dark sunglasses, Cain represents an assertive, cruel bravado utterly lacking in the complacent Carter. As it turns out, in a convoluted if generally successful scenario, some of Carter’s recent misdeeds were in fact enacted by Cain. It is even Cain, acting as Carter, who visits the police to report Jenny as missing. There he also meets with the sketch artist, and in his statement sets up Jack, or at least someone who looks like him, to be the prime suspect in a string of kidnappings (he had already planted a body in Jack’s trunk and blood on his coat sleeve). Like De Palma as storyteller, the characters themselves function in accordance to lies and deception.
Still, with all of this, by the time the film lands at the police station, it does begin to settle somewhat, and De Palma brings the narrative up to chronological speed. Carter’s background is discussed by a former colleague of his father’s, Dr. Lynn Waldheim (Frances Sternhagen), who relates to the police the detailed account of the malicious Dr. Nix (also played by Lithgow), clarifying his penchant for buying babies as part of some bizarre psychological experimentation in personality development. His aim was to induce split personalities; his test subject was his own son. So now it is a matter of tracking down the evil mastermind doctor, finding Carter, who is, in a sense, unable to control what he does, and to save little Amy from what is sure to be similar testing.
It takes a lot to get there, but there it is. After the nearly 20-minute concentration on Jenny and the flashback revelations about Carter, this sets up the race-against-the-clock pursuit of Raising Cain. One can see what studio executives were leery about with such a twisting, twisted establishment. As Gelderblom points out, this type of fragmented continuity was relatively rare in 1992, coincidentally the year Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs was released, another film that revels in the ambiguity and strain created by its non-linear structure and would, in many ways, lay the groundwork for a whole host of films that brought such an arrangement into more accepted mainstream use.
What gets lost in the back and forth about which version of Raising Cain is the best or most worthy is the amount of the film that is audaciously irregular either way. Yes, the opening of the theatrical release, beginning with Carter’s murder of a family friend and the immediate appearance of Cain, brings the audience in at a much different point than the re-cut’s emphasis on Jenny, and, yes, the eventual disclosures about Carter relate him in a more curiously sympathetic, less shocking, fashion. But both versions, by the very nature of the their schizophrenic tenor, are built on De Palma’s frequent integration of shifting perspectives, the repeated modifying of observation, and the enigmatic handling of supposed signifiers (stretching his analysis, Gelderblom wonders about all the clocks in the store where Jenny shops). There are still flashbacks in Raising Cain’s theatrical form, albeit less intensified than the new issue, and in just the opening credits, which are the same in both releases, the video monitor image of doting father Carter watching over Amy in her bed is built on potentially deceptive mediation and misrepresentation. It is both real and a rendering of reality, and it instantly spurs a curious skepticism. As is so often the case in a De Palma thriller, perhaps in Raising Cain more than most, one is constantly left to speculate about what is being seen and why De Palma’s camera loiters the way it does, and what are we possibly missing? This cynicism derives from not only an ability to raise entertaining suspicion about his cinematic incentives, but from the peculiar motivations of the characters themselves. In the case of the latter, Raising Cain is replete with moments of oddly irrational behavior, as when Jenny leaves home, and an unquestioning Carter, at 3 a.m. In the case of the former, in occasions where De Palma as author seems to blatantly call attention to such incongruities, the instances range from Jenny’s recollection about her first meeting with Jack, told (to someone in the film? to the viewer?) in the film’s lone voiceover, to when Carter dispatches a woman, car horn blaring, while Amy and another child sleep soundly through the commotion.
The film is strangely full of almost comically nonsensical conduct, particularly when it comes to Cain. As noted, the theatrical version of Raising Cain begins with the revelation of Carter as an anxious and erratic killer, and an evidently capable one. And then Cain suddenly appears, outside Carter’s passenger window, giving his panic-stricken brother real-time advice while joggers pass by in slow motion. It is a strange distortion of duration and space. At this point we are presumably to believe Cain is a real person, but this type of unnatural presentation is so illogical (where did he come from and why don’t the joggers see him?), and his manner so inflated as the teasing sibling, that it is difficult to apply any credibility to the situation. Part of this has to do with Lithgow’s wacky multi-role, multi-personality performance, his most absurdly hammy since The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984), and part of it is also De Palma’s darkly comic fondness. The extreme juxtaposition between Carter and Cain leads one to wonder if De Palma intended the “it’s been Carter all along” reveal to ever be a surprise in the first place.
Regardless of its plausibility, though, or the variations in its narrative structure, one reason why Raising Cain is an enduring favorite for De Palma buffs is its incorporation of his trademark stylistic indulgence, with rapid swish-pans and dissolves, an extensive use of the Steadicam, jarring jump cuts, primed slow motion, split diopters, and, of course, the obligatory Hitchcock allusion (a Psycho submerging car). Arguably the most impressive examples of De Palma’s cinematic ingenuity are when Dr. Lynn talks to the police in a stunning five-minute shot down stairs, into an elevator, and through a series rooms, and when, at the end, a well-orchestrated climax of virtuoso set design, color, speed, and multiple planes of action bring together the various storylines. Arguments can be made about whether or not Raising Cain fails or succeeds on the basis of chronology over an idiosyncratic narrative, or whether or not the aforementioned irregularities enhance or detract from the film’s overall effectiveness, but like him or not, as Gelderblom notes, De Palma is a “full-blooded visual stylist.” That much is evident in each of his films, no matter how you cut them.
Jeremy Carr teaches film studies at Arizona State University and writes for the publications Vague Visages, Film International, Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI’s Notebook, Cinema Retro, Movie Mezzanine, Cut Print Film
and Fandor’s Keyframe.
This restored version of Raising Cain was released on Blu-ray by Shout Factory.