Director Lodge Kerigan’s film “Clean, Shaven” chronicles the last days of a mentally ill man named Peter Winters (played by Peter Greene, whom most will remember as the pawn shop owner in “Pulp Fiction”) on a quest to find his daughter whom he believes is in danger of being murdered by a child killer.
Traveling in an old ass Buick, the recently released Peter roams the island of his Canadian home on a quest to find his daughter who was put up for adoption during his stay in the mental hospital. He is spurred on in his quest by a rash of child killings that have broken out on the island. Clues are given that Peter may or may not himself be the killer. In the trunk of his car there is a shotgun and a sack that is the right size to be holding a dead child.
As soon as the film starts the soundtrack is bombarded with jumble of whispers and voices. Some of these come from the changing radio station in Peter’s car, and some from Peter’s head. We learn as the film goes on that Peter (and vicariously, the viewer) suffers from audio hallucinations. Pretty much during all scenes with Peter this ambiance is constant giving the viewer a palpable sense of reason for Peter’s ever-growing anxiety. Believing that he has transmitters buried in his skin which are the source of the sounds he hears, he tears away at his flesh at times to get at them. In the shower he scrubs his skin hard enough to tear it loose in places and shaves all of his body hair. In the most famous scene of the film, Peter removes a fingernail that he believes houses a transmitter in it. He also tries to insulate himself from the outside world’s noise at night by covering his car windows in tabloid newspapers while he sleeps.
Meanwhile, police detective Jack McNally is on the hunt for the killer as well and has Peter set in his sights. He goes around the island just a few steps behind Peter’s heels as he interviews those who have come across his “suspect”. The response of the interviews reveals the prejudice and fear-mongering of the public at large when it comes to mentally ill people. A young girl is murdered at a hotel Peter is staying at. The blood stains in the room from Peter’s self-mutilation make Jack think that it’s the scene of a homicide. A librarian who encountered Peter doing research on recent adoptions in the area reveals her bias by telling Jack that Peter’s car is covered in “pornographic magazines”.
The acting in the film is amateur from everyone in the film except for lead Peter Greene. This is to be expected from an independent film and the acting from everyone else isn’t as important as it is from Peter since the film is spent largely with him. There is very little dialogue and the film follows a very loose, fragmented, narrative structure that helps to further illustrate Peter’s sickness. As such, the film can drag and make scenes seem longer than they actually are. Clocking in at a little less than 80 minutes, “Clean, Shaven” manages to outweigh the sum total of its shortcomings by constantly playing up it’s strengths: the sound design, musical score and Greene’s performance are a trifecta that greatly raises the film above the trappings of most independent films.
The film I was expecting was something more disturbing than what I got. I had read about this film in Fangoria when I was in high school and saw it on the shelf at the local Blockbuster but always hesitated to rent it. I’d haunt the shelves of the Blockbuster renting things like “Man Bites Dog”, the original “Funny Games”, or “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” (all films I read about in Fangoria) and hoped that when I took them up to the counter that they wouldn’t card me. Luckily, they didn’t card me, but being laughed at for renting titles such as Tobe Hooper’s “Eaten Alive” was sufficient punishment in and of itself. Forgive my tangent, though I do feel it is necessary to this review to put in perspective the kind of film I was expecting from “Clean, Shaven”. The films I actively sought out in my youth during the late 90’s dealt with mentally ill characters as fodder for exploitation. So when I put in “Clean, Shaven” I was expecting that kind of movie. Although it is a dark, disturbing, morally ambiguous and challenging film, the message is drastically different from those before-mentioned titles.
I hesitate to get into what the message of the film really is for fear of spoiling it for those who haven’t seen the film. If you think that this is something you intend to watch, stop reading here, spoilers are to follow, but there is an interesting point to be made, especially for readers of this site.
Peter’s reunion with his daughter is cut short when Jack finally catches up with him. From Jack’s perspective, he sees two legs hanging out of the backseat of the car. Thinking that it is the dead body of Peter’s daughter, he pulls out his pistol. Peter, not knowing who Jack is and fearing for the life of his daughter pulls the shot-gun out of the trunk. Jack opens fire, fatally wounding Peter in front of his own daughter who was innocently sitting in the back seat of the car. Realizing his mistake Jack picks up the shotgun and shoots it in the air to make it seem like he had been shot it. As it turns out, what seemed to be a dead body in the trunk is nothing more than a bag filled with things that belonged to Peter’s daughter. The real killer is never found.
The movie challenges our own expectations of what we normally see from movies involving mentally ill people. They are usually portrayed as psychopaths and predators, and as such they are in reality (and this film) the victims of violence by law enforcement due to horrible misunderstandings.
The film to me was hauntingly prophetic of a similar local event here from early 2006. A young bi-polar man named Kerry Turner was murdered by local police during an incident that could have been avoided. Kerry had left the mental health center at the hospital where his parents had checked him in at and come back home. His parents called the police to take him back in as he was unstable. The police say they saw Kerry with a shotgun which he took into an SUV and high-tailed it out of there. At the police station his parents tried to talk to him via cellphone to calm him down. The police took the phone from them, which quite possibly sealed the fate of Mr. Turner. He led the police on a chase through the city that ended when they opened fire on him, riddling him and the SUV with holes in an excessive amount of force that was grossly disproportionate to what the situation called for. They say they did this because Turner was trying to run them over. The shotgun they say Kerry had was never found. The officers were cleared in the shooting despite Kerry’s parents protests and court cases against the city of Greenville, NC. While I agree the officers have a right to protect themselves with deadly force if the situation calls for it, I firmly believe that the danger that the police say they were in is questionable at best and is something that could have easily been avoided had they decided to not try to walk in front of an SUV driven by a man they know is mentally unstable.
I’m not trying to say that all confrontations with police and the mentally ill end in bloodshed or that the film is trying to make that point either, what I believe we both are trying to say is that the bias against mentally ill people can lead to what basically boils down to witch hunts. Understanding and basic sympathy of the person in question rather than premature judgment can go a long ways to a peaceful resolution. Police are supposed to “protect and serve” the public at large. That public also includes people who are mentally ill.
Lodge Kerrigan wrote the film because of his friendship with a schizophrenic. The topic of mental illness and schizophrenia hits home with me very deeply as it runs in my family and I have seen the effects of it on a couple of very close family members. For these reasons I appreciate what Kerrigan was trying to accomplish with this film and recommend it to those wanting something to watch something that shows a deeper and more realistic portrayal of a mentally ill person that what we normally get in films.