Clean, Shaven (1993): Lodge Kerrigan Scary Tale of schizophrenic

Using a chilly, nonjudgmental strategy, Lodge Kerrigan’s drama, Clean, Shaven, examines the collapse of a schizophrenic. The comma in the title is a break in the flow, a deliberate imperfection.

Kerrigan’s goal is to challenge public stereotypes of mental illness as seen in movies and TV. “I was tired of seeing mentally ill people being props, going around shooting people, or just waiting for that little bit of love’ to be able to overcome their incapacity.”

Clean, Shaven is also a stark riposte to recent Hollywood movies that depict the mentally ill as fonts of simple wisdom.

Kerrigan, a NYU film school graduate, shot his film on weekends over a two-year period–“Whenever I got some money, I’d go out and shoot.” The final budget was well under one million. Framed as a mystery about a child killer searching for his young girl, the film is based on a fragmented narrative. The unsettling portrait illustrates the mental state of Peter Winter (Peter Greene), though not much is known about him. Hastening his breakdown, as he travels in a car with windows pasted over with tabloid newspapers, are hallucinations and grating radio channel scanning.

A blistering piece of cinematic inventiveness, Clean, Shaven operates in the realm of empty, eerie spaces. Few films have succeeded so convincingly in putting the audience inside a schizophrenic’s head, experiencing the feel of being battered by a jumble of uncontrollable impulses. What makes the film even more disturbing is that it adopts the formula of an innocent man hunted by a relentless cop, though it never allows the audience the comforting certainty that Peter is innocent. Kerrigan refuses to compromise in order to make things soothing for the viewers.

The heightened tension is based on the film’s narrow focus on Peter’s distorted view–his vision deliberately excludes other people. The most gruesome violence is inflicted by Peter upon himself: He gouges his own body to remove what he imagines are a receiver in his scalp and a transmitter under his fingernails, which he believes were implanted while he was in the hospital. Kerrigan showed impressive conceptual and directorial skills. Peter’s thought processes, captured by unpredictable editing, convey the constant threat of terrible violence; every minor event might push him over the edge. The soundtrack reverberates with conversational snippets and unrecognizable sounds which continuously rupture the movie. These devices prompt a discomfort Peter shares with the audience, with his memories intruding in most frightening ways.

Once Peter moves past the silent scenes and begins to communicate with other characters, Clean, Shaven loses its eerie mystery and assumes a more ordinary shape. There are only two other characters: An investigator who’s on his trail, and Peter’s mother, who seems to bring out the worst in him. Like Sling Blade, the movie doesn’t interpret much, suggesting (perhaps simplistically) that the mother may be the reason for Peter’s problems.

If you want to know more about this issue, please read my book, Cinema of Outsiders: The Rise of American Independent Film (NYU Press, paperback 2001).