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A harrowing character study of mental illness.

DVD Review: Clean, Shaven

Lodge Kerrigan’s directorial 1993 debut places the viewer into the mind of a schizophrenic through its brilliant use of sound and imagery, creating a very realistic portrayal. After being released from an institution, Peter Winter returns home to search for his daughter, who was put up for adoption by her grandmother after her mother died. His journey is not without diversion, as he becomes a suspect in a series of child murders. Clean, Shaven plays with the audience’s expectations and prejudices toward those with mental illness.

Rather than the slow realization of the loss of a mind, such as HAL in 2001, Winter is already in the midst of schizophrenia, though he is unaware, which is all the more frightening a reminder of the mind’s fragility. He can’t stand his image and covers all mirrors. He thinks his head contains a radio and his fingernail a transmitter. His attempts to stop them lead to a very memorable and graphic scene.

He is a great character because he is the ultimate unreliable narrator. When things are heard on the soundtrack but unseen on screen, how do we know what is real? A focused look at the techniques used to simulate Winter’s state of mind is examined in the video essay A Subjective Assault: Lodge Kerrigan’s “Clean, Shaven” by critic Michael Atkinson.

It’s amazing what Kerrigan was able to accomplish on a $60,000 budget, shooting over two years and edited over another. The scenes blend together well and the film has great pacing, assisted by its length of 75 minutes. He discusses the film with Steven Soderbergh on the commentary track; they became friends at Sundance in 1994. As a filmmaker, Soderbergh is a great interviewer because his understanding of the job allows him to deconstruct the process and ask probing questions that prod Kerrigan to reveal a great deal he might not have thought of on his own.

They discuss all manner of production, from self-imposed aesthetic rules and influences during pre-production — Kerrigan was watching a lot of Polanski and documentaries about mental illness at the time — to location hunting and working with the cinematographer and editor. Jay Rabinowitz was the latter and has gone on to work with directors Jim Jaramusch and Darren Aronofsky.

The film does have some problems, though. The film isn’t as captivating when Winter isn’t in the scene. There isn’t much to the other characters for the actors to work with. Stylistically, that could work when Winter is an observer in the scene, but it happens throughout the film. The plotline with the police detective is heavy-handed. He inserts himself into the story awkwardly, looking almost as if there were some scenes that would transition him into the story easier were cut.

One great feature that more DVDs will hopefully offer is the film’s soundtrack and selections from the film’s final audio mix, downloadable as MP3 files.

Though it offers more style than substance, Clean, Shaven presents a harrowing character study through a great acting performance by Peter Greene and wise choices by Kerrigan. While its depiction may not be 100% accurate, it is much more believable than something hokey like A Beautiful Mind. It is also a great DVD to learn about filmmaking as the process and results are presented to the viewer.

About Gordon S. Miller

Gordon S. Miller is the artist formerly known as El Bicho, the nom de plume he used when he first began reviewing movies online for The Masked Movie Snobs in 2003. Before the year was out, he became that site's publisher. Over the years, he has also contributed to a number of other sites as a writer and editor, such as FilmRadar, Film School Rejects, High Def Digest, and Blogcritics. He is the Publisher of Cinema Sentries. Some of his random thoughts can be found at twitter.com/ElBicho_CS

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