Friday, July 09, 2010

Peacock Allures and Woos

Directed by Michael Lander
Running Time: 90 minutes
Originally Released: April 20, 2010 (direct to DVD)

* * * ½ (out of four)

John and Emma Skillpa live a reclusive and highly routine life in 1950s Peacock, Nebraska. Every morning, Emma prepares a hot meal of crisp bacon, over easy eggs, and toast. She covers it to keep it warm until John appears, promptly at 8:15. After John devours his breakfast, he places his dishes in the sink for Emma to wash, grabs the lunch Emma has packed for him, and heads to work at the local bank. On his way home from work, John likes to stop and relax on an old tire swing fastened to a neighborhood tree, where he may read the note in his pocket from Emma, asking him to stop at the market and pick up a few things. When John gets home, Emma will have left him a note explaining how to heat the dinner she has dutifully prepared for him. You see, though Emma takes good care of John, the two don’t spend a lot of time together. But that’s because John and Emma are really the same person.

As you can imagine, John has many problems. As a child, John’s mother was severely and perversely abusive. As an adult, John is so uncomfortable in his social interactions that he can scarce make eye contact and struggles to raise his stammering voice loud enough for anyone to hear him. In some regards, this makes him a dutiful employee, since he works alone behind a desk and doesn’t mind skipping his lunch breaks. It makes him a poor town celebrity, however, which he begrudgingly becomes when a train derails and crashes into his backyard. Unfortunately for John, who very much wishes to maintain his privacy, Emma is out hanging clothes when the incident occurs. Neighbors are surprised to learn that John is married, or so they immediately assume. Meanwhile, a local politician wants to hold a rally in John’s backyard in order to prevent his opponent from turning the accident into a political pun—the train wreck, you see, was of the candidate’s own promotional train. To make matters worse, the normally isolated Emma finds that she enjoys the newfound companionship of her fellow townswomen. This causes quite a rift between John and Emma as the former learns that his presumed wife has befriended the mayor’s wife and agreed to the rally in his backyard.

Peacock is a taut psychological thriller that revels in its own subtlety. It seems the less that is happening on screen, the more powerful the film manages to become. So it is that the movie loses some punch as it reaches its less-than-knockdown crescendo, with John and Emma both trying to satisfy their own motives while keeping the other in the dark. Much better are the film’s first 30 minutes, where the richness of John’s personalities are fleshed out in scenes of near silence and very little action, and the complexity of his psychology is revealed with such delicacy that, more than once, we find ourselves doing the mental equivalent of a double-take at what we learn. Adding to the tone of the film is the cinematography of Philippe Rousselot, whose dark and dour shots of the interior of John’s home are contrasted with luminescent shots of vibrant green fields, where the grass—unlike John—grows, develops, and is full of life. Much of the film is awash in neutral tones, symbolizing an existence as monotonous and unexciting—but for John, just as comfortingly familiar—as a manila folder. Color is used sparingly, signifying empowerment and vitality, from the splash of color Emma’s makeup brings to John’s face to the red wrappers on the Clark bars John keeps hidden under a displaced porch step, a vestige of his long-lost youthful innocence.

The first and foremost reason to see Peacock is for Cillian Murphy’s mesmerizing portrayal of John and Emma. John and Emma are not the polar opposites of each other, but they are wholly distinct characters that Murphy plays with equal brilliance. It is to Murphy’s and screenwriters Michael Lander (who also directs) and Ryan O’Roy’s credit that John and Emma share key personality traits—submissiveness, for example—for it not only makes their ultimate unity more believable, but it allows Murphy to demonstrate his finesse as an actor, capturing the characters’ similarities without bleeding the two together (their shared circulatory system notwithstanding). With Peacock being a straight-to-DVD release, Murphy’s performance is ineligible for an Oscar nomination, which he probably never would receive for this film, anyway. Peacock just isn’t the kind of movie that garners the attention of highfalutin awards shows like the Oscars, but make no mistake, Murphy is outstanding. He garners sympathy for both John and Emma, even as we question who is friend and who is foe.

In supporting roles are Susan Sarandon as Fanny Crill, the mayor’s wife who runs a women’s shelter and nurtures Emma’s ever-growing assertiveness; Josh Lucas as Tom McGonigle, the sympathetic police officer who helped John gain some independence after John’s mother died; Bill Pullman as Edmund French, John’s supervisor who is all too encouraging of John’s workhorse tendencies; and Ellen Page as Maggie, a down-and-out single mother who has a disturbing past connection to both John and his deceased mother. Maggie reenters John’s life after reading about the train accident in a newspaper and is quickly befriended by the motherly Emma, much to the chagrin of John. I consider myself quite a fan of Page, and though she performs admirably here, her role seems better suited for someone older, someone less wholesome and less healthy in appearance.

Peacock is a great film, though for being a psychological thriller about a man with dissociative personality disorder, it would have benefited from a greater attention to psychology. Murphy is fantastic, but even so, John’s mindset remains significantly closed-off, even to the audience. The movie would have been all the more riveting had John’s mentality been even slightly less opaque, something that could have been accomplished by showing John in a wider range of situations. Perhaps it is this desire to understand John more than we do that leaves the film feeling just a tad bit hollow at the end—like there could have been more to it, all along. Thankfully, what there is to Peacock is enough to garner my hearty recommendation. In fact, I’ve half a mind to watch it again tonight.

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