Rather than attempt to stay way ahead of the audience, Brian De Palma’s thrillers are usually one step aside you—the better to lull you into admiring the scenery before guiding you smack into the seedy part of town. With 1992’s Raising Cain, a truly nutzoid psychological mind-fuck in which the experience of trying to pin down where reality stops and dream states begin makes John Lithgow’s crippling schizophrenia look like an attractive alternative, De Palma hands you a map to an entirely different city. Dressed to Kill, in comparison, is his greatest triumph of fastidiousness—a tight, tense, well-oiled calliope of suspense. The 1980 film’s jolts don’t stem from the plot taking unexpected detours, but, rather, grow from one’s slow-dawning realization that De Palma is so talented he can make a film about mistaken and concealed identities without a single shred of doubt over who’s tailing who and you’re still enthralled, grooving on the pleasure of technique.
In contrast, the gauzily astringent Raising Cain recoils from the surfeit of technique, and pleasure takes a holiday. The rickety frame of the story involves Carter Nix (Lithgow), a child psychologist whose father, also a psychologist, used him as a test subject to examine the factors by which a young personality can be formed. Unfortunately, Nix the elder apparently thought it best to focus his research on seeing just how many maladaptations a single brain can hold. Despite a long, annotated case history from the interrogating Dr. Waldheim (Frances Sternhagen) that plays out just long enough to merit one of De Palma’s bravura traveling shots, it’s never clear how many fractured fragments of psyche make up the title character (Cain is Carter’s amoral, almost beatnik alter ego). Accentuating the confusion, De Palma turns the film’s second act into a disorienting labyrinth of dream sequences within flashbacks within fantasies. As Jenny, Carter’s cheating wife, Lolita Davidovich spends at least 10 minutes of the film either waking up in the wrong man’s bed or dying violently, over and over.
Rather than clarifying, De Palma’s technique with Raising Cain effectively obliterates the audience’s bearings. Which gives the film’s final sequence—on the surface a shameless swipe from Dario Argento’s killer reveal at the climax of Tenebre—a nasty twist. De Palma has frequently used dream sequences in his films as a way to demonstrate transference: the bequeathing of erotic terror to Nancy Allen sleeping in Angie Dickenson’s bed in Dressed to Kill or the fear of isolation from peers that Carrie White sanguinely (in every way) teaches Sue Snell in Carrie. But in Raising Cain, there’s no forum for this type of psychological exchange because there isn’t a rational control group. (“There was no body because there was no murder,” as Jennifer Salt would say.)
Raising Cain is, from frame one, a tapestry of dreams; the first shot shows Carter and Jenny’s daughter, Amy (Amanda Pombo), sleeping on the parental surveillance video (in fact, she spends most of the time either sleeping or waiting to sleep). It’s not difficult to accept much of the film as emerging from deep within her abused psyche. Not only does the final (rationally impossible) shot suggest it, but so does the film’s creepiest grace note: the curly haired little boy emerging from a park bathroom to rasp, “I know what you’re going to do. It’s a bad thing, and I’m going to tell,” to Cain, his voice sounding eerily like Lithgow on helium. I know if I were Amy and trying to make sense of why my daddy wanted to put me in a cage, I might start by making one of his personalities in my own age bracket. Ultimately, the reason the final shot is so perversely effective is because of its absence of transference. Instead, it reveals a psyche (or a bunch of them) hopelessly caught in a cycle of insanity.