Todd Haynes’s enviro-disease masterpiece Safe might just be the most terrifying film of the last decade. There are no monsters or homicidal maniacs here—instead, the film’s horror emanates from an abstruse place where suburban drudgery gives way to a self-inflicted, existential crisis. The film’s narrative is far from typical and its protagonist, Carol White (Julianne Moore), is painfully unextraordinary. She is the marginal housewife whose slight frame seems to wither beneath her giant shoulder pads. Carol is privileged yet disconnected from everything in her life—her husband, her friends, even her stepson. Often hidden in the corners of Haynes’s lens, she becomes nothing more than a fixture in her sterile home.
We first meet Carol underneath her husband in cold, loveless lovemaking. The next morning she prunes her wilted yellow roses and awaits the arrival of her new couches. She is the real American Beauty and Haynes furnishes his story with realism and sympathy rather than irony or satirical wit. Haynes renders the film’s ‘80s milieu via a sickening color-palette saturated with lavenders, teals and salmon-pinks and a selection of only the most frivolous music from the era. Stylistically, Haynes’s laggard pans mimic Carol’s hesitant gait while each immobile shot captures the sheer dread of a life unlived. Carol walks into her living room and sighs “Oh, God” with the shock of a woman who has stumbled upon her dead husband. The true horror, though, lies in the mundane: her new couches are the wrong color.
Carol, no doubt sickened by her own life, gradually becomes hypersensitive to her environment and the material things that have come to define the fabric of her existence. Eventually, her unexplained illness leads her to Wrenwood, a non-profit communal settlement co-founded by Claire Fitzpatrick (Kate McGregor-Stewart) and Peter Dunning (Peter Friedman), a chemically-sensitive man living with AIDS whose “perspective is incredibly vast.” The warmth and acknowledgement Carol receives in her first hours at Wrenwood are a striking juxtaposition to the loneliness and despondency of her everyday life. For Haynes, though, where there is hope there is doubt. The pretenses of Carol’s life are stripped away but just as she begins to reestablish her identity, she begins to lose herself to the group.
The director’s perspective is one of existential culpability; taking responsibility for your own illness creates security and safety in a chaotic world where suffering is dealt out in a seemingly arbitrary fashion. His view of New Age healing is cynical at best but he offers this: “Viewers of film have extraordinary powers: they can make life out of reflections on the wall.” The revelation that Dunning lives in a mansion on a hill high above Wrenwood is presumably supposed to render the character corrupt. But this very response is engrained in an even more perverted notion that those who provide a healing service (teachers, priests, counselors) should not take money from those they help. To earn our respect, Dunning must live in poverty and martyrdom.
Regardless of Wrenwood’s political implications, Carol’s allegiance to the group and the relationships she cultivates within it afford her the ability to look inside herself and own her disease. Part of the group’s daily mantra is a folk song that proclaims Safe‘s thematic core: “Give yourself to love!” The film’s final, haunting image finds Carol seeking liberation through a fragile attempt at self-love. We know nothing of this woman’s inner-traumas, the repressed memories or hidden pains of her youth, yet Moore, in an extraordinary milestone performance, gives us a glimpse inside Carol’s frail and lonely soul. She appears to be terminally ordinary but, of course, she is not. Indeed, she could be any one of us and that is quite possibly the most terrifying truth ever put to film.