Todd Haynes's insidious manifesto is both a scathing commentary on the AIDS panic of the 80's and a disturbing exploration of self-denial. Featuring an unforgettable performance by Julianne Moore and evocative visuals, Safe is a brutally effective psychological thriller that slowly reveals itself as an art house odyssey of horror.
Julianne Moore's first leading role involves a complacent homemaker who opens the door to her personal closet of razor blade skeletons. Using the appearance of a milquetoast maiden to slowly capture the audience, Moore delves through the film's three leveled design with subdued aplomb, using her character's paper mache sanity as a means of suffocated propulsion. There is a scene during a baby shower that perfectly melds the topical story of mental and biological assault with the not quite body horror theme that undulates beneath. Haynes's script begins as an innocuous, almost accusatory expose' on the privileged sleepwalkers of the upper middle class. As the narrative progresses, the film becomes an allegory for AIDS paranoia, but it is during the final act that it reveals its true intentions. Safe is film that flirts with not only the ivory towers of economic and sexual safety; but also illustrates how these ideas are the building blocks of the prisons we metaphysically construct around ourselves.
Alex Nepomniaschy's cinematography bolsters Anthony Stabley's art direction to present compositions that frame the sterile domestic environs as pristine palaces whose innate passions have been eroded by years of boutique shopping and endless workout charades. The intense colors of suburbia are contrasted by a warm natural palette during the final segment. The precise, sharp edged angles give way to rustic, Kaffeeklatsch veneers that seek to transmute the mental anguish of the tormented by way of condescending spirituality, mentally patronizing the afflicted and mirroring the natural societal response to personal upheaval. This is the hidden beauty of this terrifying endeavor. The viewer begins as a voyeur to the mental carnage and through Haynes's technical three card molly, they become complicit in Moore's utter surrender to her predicament.
Brendan Dolan and Ed Tomney's score unfurls around Mark Beck's rhythmic sound editing to elicit an industrial tapestry that enhances the film's ominous mood. Nancy Steiner's costume design bifurcates bake sale serenity with otherworldly grandeur, featuring rich ensembles and a harrowing bio-hazard specter that serves as the film's unruly mascot.
Available now on a beautiful 4K transfer from The Criterion Collection, Safe is one of Todd Haynes best films. Using a deliberate pace to transport the viewer through a hand sanitizer crucible, this is one of the most unique horror films ever made. Unsettling, challenging, and ultimately unresolved, Safe is a disturbing viewing experience that challenges the notions of comfort with an unrelenting story about personal health and the limits to which the psyche will go to defend itself.
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