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Rick McGrath [Celluloid 03.06.12] thriller drama

Year: 2011
Directors: Guy Maddin
Writers: Guy Maddin & George Toles
IMDB: link
Trailer: link
Review by: Rick McGrath
Rating: 8 out of 10

Erroneously labeled a gangster flick or noir ghost drama, wacky Canadian writer/director Guy Maddin's art house flick Keyhole is more likely the abstract appreciation of the trauma and memory inherent in an old house, which is in itself a potent psychological symbol. Happiness is quick to leave a home, but melancholy lingers, we're told early in the story. How you view the hole perhaps depends on which key you have in your mind.

The setup is fascinating: the whole story takes place in a huge, rambling house. Outside it's night and a terrific storm is raging (yeah, it was a dark and stormy night), and suddenly there's a violent, stylized gunfight between 1930s cops, gangsters and their molls. The gang manages to fight their way through the cops and occupy the house, and there they await the arrival of their leader, one Ulysses Pick. Sounds straightforward, but already we're in the land of dreams and fantasy, as the house is full of ghosts and even the gang is operating on an irrational level, to wit: those gang members killed in the attack are still with the gang, but they're told they now have to turn their faces to the wall. Once identified, they're sent out of the house, reassured that the cops will find them and take them to the morgue. Off they go. The gang has also dragged in a prisoner — a young man, gagged and bound to a chair — and when Ulysses finally arrives he brings with him a blind girl he’s saved from drowning who exhibits psychic abilities. With all the characters in place, we then follow Ulysses as he explores the baffling house in an attempt to find his long-missed wife.

Believe me, this is an incredibly condensed version of a very disjointed, abstract storyline which you might think, given our hero's name, is a riff on Homer's The Odyssey. Granted, Keyhole's Ulysses is returning home after a long absence, the boy in the chair turns out to be his son, and he's searching for his wife who is bound to her father, but for me Keyhole is also, perhaps unconsciously, full of psychological tropes concerning the nature of dream and memory. By that I mean you can see the whole story as a symbolic fantasy (or nightmare, depending on your ability to absorb ambiguity) undertaken by the protagonist in an attempt to overcome some repressed neurosis. In that reading, the house becomes a symbol for the mind, each room hoards a memory of psychic importance, and even the three storeys mirror the psychic triad of id, ego and superego, with all the sex and violence of Ulysses' gangsters of the unconscious contained on the lowest floor, and his repressions - his neurotically dangerous wife and her sadistic father - on the top floor. The dream-like qualities, the unceasing exterior traumatic storm, the constant repetition of activities, the desire to return to an earlier time, the recovery of memories, all point to a psychological puzzle in which Maddin rather infuriatingly leaves any conclusions up to you with an ambivalent ending and final, almost subliminal shock.

The movie isn't all serious and psychological, though, as Maddin appears to like to sneak in little laughable absurdities which tend to keep the gang and ghosts busy while Ulysses checks out the rooms, all the while dragging the chair which contains his son, Manners (the Butler?). Or when Ulysses needs one of his childhood toys — in this case, a stuffed wolverine with a scout knife in its mouth. Impressive.

Stylistically, the direction goes a long way to hide the no doubt minuscule budget. Shot to suit the 1930s era in stark black and white noir style, the busy camera is as jumpy as the plotline, moving incessantly from angle to angle as the characters are picked out by either lightning flashes or what appears to be police searchlights through driving rain. Chiaroscuro abounds, no doubt reflecting our hero's divided state of mind. It's an amazing performance of visual inventiveness, and works well to focus our attention on scenes which otherwise, in other hands, might lack meaning and drama. Equally interesting is the soundtrack, by sound designer John Gurdebeke. Invariably intrinsic, it adds much to the overall uncanniness of Keyhole.

The acting is pretty well what you’d expect, given each character's presence is a function of Ulysses' imagination and memory. Jason Patric is very good as the quest-driven Ulysses, and Isabella Rossellini adroitly plays Hyacinth, his wife. Everyone else is competent, and as this is a Canadian flick, the more observant of viewers might recognize Kevin McDonald of "Kids in the Hall" fame, as well as other familiar faces from Canadian TV network productions. Perhaps this is a good place to mention that Keyhole has some explicit nudity, male and female, with the females definitely winning.

You know, when you look through a keyhole you're seeing something maybe you shouldn't, but even what you see is just a piece of a larger, unseen picture. Perhaps that's the way to also approach this version of a Keyhole — as a little peek inside a neurotic mind. It may appear crazy, but you’re only seeing a bit of it.

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