Can an artist’s mid-career change of pace be both a nervy strike into fresh territory and frustratingly elusive when new interests diminish reliable strengths? Opening with rat-a-tat montage of gangsters taking refuge in a mansion that suggests The Petrified Forest cut with Eisensteinian frenzy, Guy Maddin’s Keyhole is laden with many of the bells and whistles that have marked the Canadian filmmaker as the master of wrapping Freudian wounds in retro gauze. Flashing black-and-white images, noirish angles that go from floor-planted to overhead in one edit, and the copious narrative absurdism that have been staples of Maddin’s work, particularly in his last five feature-length projects, abound. After running a gauntlet through the blazing tommy guns of a police dragnet (which keeps searchlights flashing across rooms in myriad scenes), a hood officiously asks the gang’s fatalities to line up, then shoos them out the door: “The cops’ll make sure you get to the morgue.” But soon the tale twists into a haunted family history, and the comic fillips the director calls his “joy buzzers” partly recede to expose a starker—and more remote—case of cinema therapy.
Who’s dead or living isn’t always immediately apparent in Keyhole‘s dark and stormy night of reckoning, save for the naked old ghost upstairs (intrepid Louis Negin) whose voiceover suggestively charts the history of the house, “a strange labyrinth” with a convenient open-air bog for corpse dumping at its center, and beckons Ulysses Pick (a witty and perfectly cast Jason Patric), the chief gangster who enters with a fedora dripping rainwater and a drowned girl (Brooke Palsson, soon ambulatory) slung over his shoulder. “Remember, Ulysses, remember,” the leathery specter bids the felon, his prodigal son-in-law, whose agenda isn’t tied to a big score or flight from the law but to resolving his existential crises: “So many locked doors, and they all have to be opened.” Ulysses doggedly kneels at the keyhole of his late wife Hyacinth (Isabella Rossellini)‘s bedroom, imploring her to allow him to “return what was lost” and yield the grief for her lost children, all of whom linger in soul, memory, or the flesh of youngest son Manners (David Wontner), whom Ulysses has kidnapped and kept bound to a chair without fully recognizing. (Hyacinth, for her part, enjoys semi-corporeal passion with a dashing Chinese lover while her dad is chained to the bed.)
At a recent New York screening, Maddin joked that his film is a free adaptation of “the Wikipedia page of The Odyssey,” but its mythical weight isn’t Homeric but homebound. In its last third, increasingly seen through the searching, sorrowful eyes of the now-liberated Manners, who’s burdened by tragedy and regret perhaps heavier than his father’s, Keyhole accents not throwaway antics with a bicycle-powered electric chair or eccentric ghostly pastimes like Yahtzee-playing and whipping of the newly croaked, but the pathos of a physician in mourning (Udo Kier, playing it straight) or a family tableau of father, mother, and son happily redecorating the parlor to “the way it was.” Maddin’s passions and obsessions remain palpably close to the bone, but the overall result is as muted as in his ‘90s films like Careful, where a rampant imagination was evident but misapplied to cute, distancing conceits (a village perched on a cliff edge). Perhaps this plunge into the other side of the sobriety spectrum will seem less unnatural with time or future projects, but Maddin seems to be operating with his most creative arm bound through Keyhole‘s final enigmatic, metaphoric games.