‘Distressing’ is the word you might use to describe the experience of watching Lodge Kerrigan’s feature film debut “Clean, Shaven” (1993). The film, made on a shoe-string budget (of $60,000) for over a two-year period, imparts one of a kind cinematic experiment that makes us to plunge inside the mind of a paranoid, schizophrenic. The central character of the movie, Peter Winter (played by Peter Greene) is totally stripped off the elan with which American movies like to portray serial killers or those afflicted with mental illness. Peter in “Clean, Shaven” is neither a hero nor an anti-hero. He is just shown as a man with a disturbing mindscape traveling through a deplorable landscape. The narrative is anything but clear-headed and many of the narrative blank spaces are left to viewer’s perception and assumptions.
From an objective perspective, nothing is clear about Peter Winter at the start of the film. The cacophony of radio channels keeps on reverberating and the few conversational snippets we hear doesn’t make any sense, and gradually we see Peter traveling alone in a car. The unhinged Peter’s car windows are covered with tabloid newspapers. A little girl’s soccer ball hits Peter’s car window. She looks at him questionably, while Peter gets out and we only hear the noise of a girl screaming. We also see a plastic cover in the shape of a corpse, in the trunk of his car. Did he kill that girl? Why did he paste newspapers all over his car? In the motel, Peter uses scissors to cut off something from his head. Why’s he doing that? Later, a detective finds the body of another little girl near the motel, where Peter has stayed.
Did he kill that girl too? A troubled detective (Robert Albert) investigating the case thinks so. While drinking milk, Peter sees ‘missing girls’ photo on the face of milk carton. He flinches, while looking at those girls’ photograph. Is he a serial killer, who has killed little girls all over the American states? Peter’s journey does stop at his mothers’ house. His mother (Megan Owen) disapproves the visit and seems uninterested, when Peter asks about his daughter Nicole (Jennifer MacDonald). But, she does call someone and tells about her son’s visit. Who did she call? And, who is that sullen little girl, neglecting the love of her adopted mother? There are quite a few other questions too, although for most of the queries, there’s no guarantee of a clear-cut answer.
If one has to point out the primary flaw of “Clean, Shaven”, then it has to be the simplest of story. However, Kerrigan’s astounding approach to his central subject provides us a thorough engrossing as well as a disturbing experience. As the narrative gains a little clarity, we are able to empathize with Peter, although Kerrigan’s insists on keeping a detached distance from the viewer. There’s no surprising or sensational element in the script, but the director retains the uncomfortable atmosphere, from the start to end. Of course, the film would have been so intriguing, if there were strongly written supporting characters. That said we also have to take into account the budgetary and time constraints, faced by Mr. Kerrigan.
The directorial techniques of Lodge Kerrigan are at its best, while he focuses on the experiences of a schizophrenic. The extreme close-ups, scratching noise of radio waves, threatening voices from the past (may be the voice of an asylum inmate), torn down picture of a little girl, wires on poles along the road, parched landscape are all significant elements used by Kerrigan to channelize the existential nightmare of Peter Winter. The environment Peter makes his journey is totally bleak, where only squalor and grimness rests and these surroundings allows us to sympathize with the people dwelling within. A bucket of fish-heads, raw meat, or the emotional blandness of the people is depicted in a banal manner to accentuate the director’s vision. Madness also seems to be natural part of the environment (an angry man shouts from a dilapidated street). When Kerrigan tend to focus upon the detective, he does seem to digress a lot. Kerrigan tries to state how mental illness pervades in such a desolate society, through the final frames of detective (sitting in a pub), or else he might say that keeping one’s sanity is nearly impossible in a brutalized, ruthless surrounding. Apart from orchestrating the narrative as a perplexing drama, Kerrigan does employ quite a few scare tactics to keep our heart-pounding. The ‘fingernail-pulling’ scene and the sequence in autopsy table diffuse a lot of dread.
The contorted subjectivity and a bleak, dream imagery does bring to mind the feature-film debut of David Lynch (“Eraserhead”). Director Kerrigan himself states that John Cassavettes’ “A Woman under Influence” (a greatest film ever made on mental instability) and Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” & “King of Comedy” as the primary influences behind the making of “Clean, Shaven”. Greene, who had mostly played the roles of hooligan in his career (in “Pulp Fiction”, “The Mask”, “The Usual Suspects”, etc), offers an powerful and authentic performances as Peter. He makes us cringe at times, but also shows grounded, genuine feelings to question our judgement of his character.
“Clean, Shaven” (80 minutes) offers a rare, effective and lurid portrayal about a schizophrenic mental state. Those who have a penchant for dark films and patience to absorb an unorthodox narrative might marvel at this piece of film-making.