Raising Cain (1992)
Directed by: Brian De Palma.
Written by: Brian De Palma.
Starring: John Lithgow (Carter / Cain / Dr. Nix / Josh / Margo), Lolita Davidovich (Jenny), Steven Bauer (Jack), Frances Sternhagen (Dr. Waldheim), Gregg Henry (Lt. Terri), Tom Bower (Sgt. Cally), Mel Harris (Sarah), Teri Austin (Karen), Gabrielle Carteris (Nan), Barton Heyman (Mack), Amanda Pombo (Amy), Kathleen Callan (Emma).
I am glad that I saw the documentary De Palma before ever seeing his 1992 film Raising Cain – one of the few films in the director’s filmography I had not seen before. I’m glad because without it, I may well have thought that De Palma had no idea what the hell he was doing in terms of story structure, because even by De Palma standards – where story is secondary, and often ridiculous, the story of Raising Cain is completely ridiculous, and doesn’t seem to even be thought out. In the film De Palma, the director admits as such – saying that everything with John Lithgow’s Carter and his multiple personalities was supposed to come much later in the film, which was to open with Lolita Davidovich, as Carter’s wife Jenny, and her story. The problem is that once De Palma got into the editing room, none of that was working, so he had to find a way to make it work on the fly with what he already had. This doesn’t really make the very obvious problems with Raising Cain go away – but at least it makes them understandable.
In the film, Lithgow stars as Carter, who is seemingly a perfect husband and father. He, like his father before him, is a child psychologist, and has taken time away from his practice to raise the daughter he and Jenny – an oncologist – have together. But Jenny thinks he may be a little too interested in their daughter’s development – and maybe she would actually do something about it, except for the fact that a former lover, Jack (Steven Bauer), has just re-entered her life, and she thinks that she may still be in love with him. In the audience, we already know something is wrong with Carter – as in the first scene, he excepts for him and his daughter, from another mother at the park – who has her own kid in tow – a ride that will end in murder and kidnapping, and the appearance of Cain, also played by Lithgow, a chain smoking, leather jacket wearing psychopath. This is a pattern that will repeat itself throughout the movie – with Carter/Cain kidnapping children to continue the work of their child psychologist father (also Lithgow) – who has had his own run-ins with the law.
If I’m being honest about Raising Cain, not a whole lot of what’s onscreen really works. You have to give full marks to Lithgow, who goes for broke in every moment of the film – but that really just results in him overacting in every scene. This isn’t the type of role(s) where you want subtly to be sure, but a little bit less theatricality could have helped. Lolita Davidovich doesn’t fare much better – and that’s because she really isn’t give very much to do. Her Jenny remains a blank throughout the film, supposedly torn between two men, but not seemingly to like either of them very much – or even her own daughter. Steven Bauer – who has done good work for De Palma before in Scarface (1983) is an emotionless void in Raising Cain.
If the acting and story of Raising Cain leaves plenty to be desired however, you do have to admire De Palma’s style – which as always, is go for broke, and show-offy, but not in a way that distracts like Lithgow’s performance sometimes does. The climax of the film – during a thunder storm, at a motel, with many different characters converging, done in almost entirely slow motion, is masterful for instance. It is classic De Palma – a sequence worthy of the thrillers he had stopped making for a number of years before Raising Cain (really, 1984’s Body Double was the last in this vein – and there wouldn’t be another until Femme Fatale in 2002).
Raising Cain is certainly an auteur film – in both good and bad ways. I liked the film more than I probably otherwise would have, if it were not directed by Brian De Palma. Having seen over 20 films my him now, it’s easy to pick out his stylistic hallmarks, his way with actors, his pet themes, etc. – all of which can help deepen the experience of even an admittedly silly film like Raising Cain. Where it goes a little too far, is when some try to justify Raising Cain as some sort of misunderstood masterwork – of the culmination of De Palma’s style (seriously, I have seen this film rank ridiculously high on some list of De Palma’s work). I appreciate the parts of Raising Cain that work – as few and far between as they are – and it is definitely a De Palma film. It’s just not a particularly good one.