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by Jay Seaver

"Sometimes amazing, sometimes Maddin-ing - like usual."
4 stars

SCREENED AT INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL BOSTON 2012: Winnipeg-based director Guy Maddin has never been anything less than unconventional, but some of his more recent efforts have met the mainstream halfway; they were peculiar films but the audience didn't have to take up residence in Maddin's head to understand them. Despite having a few actors that the audience will recognize at the top of the cast, "Keyhole" is half a step back toward strange, but manages to be more intriguing than confusing.

The cops have got gangster Ulysses Pick (Jason Patric) and his gang on the run, eventually cornering them in his mansion. It's a terrible place to make a last stand, but escape seems to be far from Ulysses's mind; he means to find his wife Hyacinth (Isabella Rossellini), who has shut herself in her bedroom since the death of most of their children. That sounds like it should not be difficult, but Ulysses's memory isn't working quite right, and he's relying on a young woman (Brooke Palsson) to show him the way, but she seems both psychic and disoriented, likely as a result of her recent drowning.

That will throw a person, but the lines separating life and death are different in Keyhole's world. The mansion is filled with ghosts, and after the shootout ends, Ulysses asks those who have died to step outside, so that the police can get them to the morgue. Maddin and co-writer George Toles don't specify the rigid rules of a fantasy universe here; while not every interaction between the living and the dead is weighty and symbolic (some are just crude jokes), the basic idea seems to be that death and loss can be handled in many different ways. Sometimes, the survivors can seem more like ghosts than the departed.

Maddin and company don't spend much time on that sort of overt philosophizing, though. That sort of thing is buried well below the surface, where gangsters say strange things in snappy ways, homemade electric chairs play into the plot, and the courtyard at the center of the house features a bottomless marsh. Some bits are laden with symbolism; others just seem to be peculiar ideas of Maddin's that fit better here than anywhere else. It's close to a fifty-fifty split between the delightfully absurd and the annoyingly obtuse, though there's enough purpose in its oddity that multiple viewings will hopefully pull things together.

That's par for the course with Maddin, though. Fans of his will likely recognize his signature style by now - black-and-white cinematography that could come straight out of a surrealist silent movie married to soaring music and mannered dialogue that seems like a stranger version of an early talkie. The sets are crowded with junk and there are multiple exposures. He hasn't become self-parody yet, at least, and his attempts to create a dream-like ambiance will often send the audience toward dreamland (at least, until he course-corrects by waving a penis in their face). He delivers some of the weirdest bits with the most energy.

The cast is a bit split on that. Isabella Rossellini and Udo Kier, veterans of Maddin in particular and art-house peculiarity in general, almost seem too comfortable in this weird environment, their eccentric characters blending into other Rossellini and Kier roles. Jason Patric, meanwhile, seems to be having a blast, fully committing to every strange thing that Maddin has him say or do, getting to be old-school and new wave at once. Brooke Palsson manage to keep both feet firmly in the unreal while being easy to relate to.

As ever, Maddin is not for everyone, and this is one of his more uneven efforts, though tilted toward the positive. If you're in his a fan (or a potential fan, though predicting who fits into that group is tricky), it's a fair example of his work; if you're not, well, it's a fair example of his work.

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originally posted: 05/10/12 10:03:10
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2012 South By Southwest Film Festival For more in the 2012 South By Southwest Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: Independent Film Festival Boston 2012 For more in the Independent Film Festival Boston 2012 series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Seattle International Film Festival For more in the 2012 Seattle International Film Festival series, click here.

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  DVD: 19-Jun-2012


  DVD: 19-Jun-2012

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