This reflection on Todd Haynes’ film Safe was originally intended as part of the examination of horror films in Through a Screen Darkly.

“Is it safe?”

Thanks to a nightmare-inducing movie called Marathon Man, those three simple words send chills down my spine. Laurence Olivier asked that question, again and again, playing the role of a sadistic Nazi war criminal who is torturing his captive. Dustin Hoffman is strapped into a dentist’s chair, screaming as the wicked doctor pulls at his teeth and jabs at nerve endings. He does not know what his captor is talking about. He has no answer to the question.

“Is it safe?”

The question becomes the answer – no, it definitely isn’t safe.

It’s the same question that hovers over the entirety of Todd Haynes’ little-known, but unforgettable picture misleadingly titled Safe.

*          *          *

Safe begins in a discomforting stillness, leaving us to grope for our bearings.

We’re looking out through the car windshield on a suburban community. In the dim light, this suburban neighborhood seems rather unsettling. The streets are empty. The houses are dark. And we’re not sure if the occupants of the car are a threat or sympathetic. We don’t hear a thing. Just the low hum of the car. Is it silent in the car, or is the director depriving us of hearing what is going on? It seems we’re sealed in an insulated world, looking at a ghost town, which is reflected in an inverted image on the polished, glossy hood of the car – a quiet suggestion of an upside-down world, a false and distorted reality.

It could be that the reflection is incidental, or that the quiet is just the setup for a car crash or a shout. But no. The car glides smoothly into the garage of an ordinary house, and the couple get out. They may as well be sleepwalking. We can hear them say something to each other. Their words are muffled, but the tone tells us that it’s probably a practical exchange. They’ve probably done this hundreds of times.

The opening title, when it appears, is styled like the narrow, forbidding figures of a horror movie title.

Is a serial killer waiting inside? Will we learn someone was hiding in the back seat?

Suddenly, we’re startled by the shift into a downward-looking view of the couple having sex. We see the husband’s back, and Carol’s face staring absently up at the ceiling. Her face bears the expression of someone patiently finishing a chore. She doesn’t look miserable, but there is no passion. There is, in fact, nothing. And when he’s finished, well, that’s that.

Has she surrendered to doing things his way? Or is she just passionless and uninterested?

So now we are suspecting that she is profoundly lonely and detached. But why?

As her husband departs, we notice, because we’re waiting to see his face, that the camera is not in any hurry to reveal him to us. And we shift into assuming that the film is about the woman.

And the next scene confirms this even more. Carol is working in the manicured yard, wearing designer jeans and working in the orderly garden. And as her husband leaves for work, we’re still disallowed a clear view of his face.

Haynes has already drawn our focus to elements that are prominent themes in his work: the stifling effect of order, the suffocating effect of wealth, the bondage of cultural “peer pressure,” and the soul’s hunger for passion and intimacy. The cold beams of the electronic soundtrack only accentuate the superficiality of the visible world in which Carol is trapped. Haynes’ camerawork feels dispassionate and clinical, like we’re watching a science experiment instead of a drama.

It may be, in fact, a science experiment. We learn very soon that something is, indeed, terribly wrong. When the horror sinks its claws in, we watch Carol gasping for breath. Is it a dark secret? A double life? An alien presence? Undiagnosed illness? An invisible wraith? Food allergies?

The tension rises as we begin to search for the cause of such cold, empty behavior, such harrowing episodes of hyperventilation.

As the film progresses, we may begin to discern what threads are binding the scenes together, like the tendency to show vast empty spaces around the central figures, the curious habit of characters to crowd together in corners, or to separate themselves with walls.

You may come to a completely different conclusion than me. My thoughts about Carol’s affliction change from viewing to viewing. Currently, I am suspecting that the situation reflects something more than a physical affliction. Haynes has lent a slight exaggeration to everything, emphasizing ever so slightly the ways that decorum, formality, affluence, and all of the trappings of civilization can cloak an emptiness of the spirit, serving as disguises for (and distractions from) our flaws, our fears, our need. It might also be true that these formalities prevent that void from being filled.

Haynes’ refusal to serve up a simple solution for this misery can be frustrating at first. But that is what makes Safe so interesting, so compelling. He’s demonstrating the ability of art to ask profound questions. In fact, the film is more than a question – Safe is an expression of lack, a despairing sort of cry.

There is nowhere we can go that is safe from the incompleteness of the human condition… at least, not in this film.

*          *          *

I recently observed, in an online conversation between moviegoing friends, a perfect example of how a horror film can be crafted in a way that serves more than it scares.

John Adair, a doctoral candidate in historical theology who lives in Dallas, participates in an online film-discussion group that recently agreed to watch Safe on DVD for the first time and discuss it. John’s a thoughtful viewer – he cherishes Kieslowski’s Decalogue. And when he posted his first impressions of Safe, I felt that familiar thrill, seeing someone else experience the kind of epiphany that draws me back to the movies again and again.

He wrote:

The initial thing that struck me was Haynes’ reserved style. The shots tend to be wide, allowing the actors to act in front of us, rather than using editing to elicit reactions from the viewer. This forces us to react to what is going on before us, to formulate an opinion, to have a perspective of our own on the events taking place.

It’s interesting to me that John started by examining the camerawork and editing, instead of going straight to how it made him feel. And what he noticed is very important. Most filmmakers give us a variety of shots during a scene, as if worried they’ll lose our attention. In doing so they emphasize what they think is important about the scene. In Safe, Haynes discomforts us by making us decide for ourselves what to focus on, as if we’re Carol’s neighbors watching her through the window. In doing so, he turns us into searchers, like Carol, trying to make sense of her suffering.

But John was just getting started. He went on to point out ways in which Haynes’ direction showed Carol “isolated throughout much of the film.” He noticed details about her sex life, her lack of communication with her worried husband, her conversations with her friends, and her interaction with a psychiatrist that reinforced his sense of her isolation.

Finding a pattern, John grew interested in what it meant. But he wasn’t just watching, detached, like Damiel looking down on Marion in Wings of Desire. John knew that his own personal experience was affecting his perspective. And as he allowed the horror of Carol’s experience to sink in and mix with his own experience, he discovered something about himself.

…About midway through, I realized my reaction to Carol and her plight was more negative than I would hope for myself. I found it difficult to connect with her. She just seemed weak and weepy and it was frustrating me.

But this is where I think the greatness of this film comes in. Because of its pulled back style, it allowed me to formulate that opinion for myself, and thus turn a mirror on myself that would not have happened had Haynes been pulling out all the little tricks to get me to empathize with his main character.

I almost feel like Haynes is doing everything he can to isolate Carol from any experience that is familiar to the audience. Her husband doesn’t know what’s going on with her. Her doctors can’t figure out what it is. Even the people at the ranch don’t seem all that insightful into her problems. Yet still she struggles and suffers.

And then he came to a conclusion.

In doing so, the film revealed to me that my own empathy has limits, which of course I know, but it’s still a powerful moment of realization for me. The film, through showing the weakness of a person, in its own way, revealed my own weakness and limitation.

All of this, from his first encounter with an odd, overlooked art film – a film full of horror, discomforting human behavior, and lacking any satisfying resolution.

That’s what art can do, when the artist is careful to serve the audience, even with discomforting representations. For those who watch with discretion and discernment, horror can reveal our limitations, and inspire us to seek, to find, to grow.