Although it’s told in three fractured, disjointed segments, there’s a unifying theme of unspoken menace in Todd Haynes’s debut film, Poison, that ties the whole thing together as a cohesive expression of queer anxiety. One segment in particular that involves a 1950s B-movie mad scientist who gradually transforms into a monster after accidentally ingesting his own experimental sex serum felt like a darkly comical, but ambiguously tense reflection on the AIDS crisis that wrecked queer communities in the 80s & 90s. That same thematic thread continued into Haynes’s follow-up feature, Safe, which also dwells on the menace of declining health without directly connecting the illness to a real world crisis in the text, but still feeling like direct commentary on a real life tragedy. I’m not sure if Safe is tackling AIDS (the way Poison does), the way women are discounted & disbelieved about dysfunction within their own bodies, the ills of modern culture at large, or some unholy combination of all three. Its continuation of playing an unknowable, unstoppable health menace as a kind of existential crisis is its strongest asset and the one that’s the most welcome contribution to Haynes’s overall oeuvre. Its only misstep is when it strays from that menace in its lackluster third act.
Julianne Moore stars as Carol (a protagonist name Haynes would later repurpose for much a more amplified effect), a milquetoast housewife to a wealthy California business prick. Carol’s suburban ennuii initially resembles a run of the mill indie drama conflict. Her sex life is unsatisfying, the constant renovation & redecoration of her home is a sign of discontent, and her alienation from her husband & violence-obsessed stepson becomes increasingly pronounced with every awkward meal they’re obligated to share. Things devolve into a “The Yellow Wallpaper”-style horror from there as Carol’s ennuii transforms into a physical illness that cannot be explained by the men in charge of her well being. Her headaches, nosebleeds, and coughing attacks suggest there’s something deathly wrong with her body, but her unsympathetic husband & doctor brush it off as hypochondria, since the ailment cannot be pinpointed by science as a virus or allergy or anything else scientifically measurable. Carol moves to a commune far outside the city to immerse herself in a chemical-phobic culture of New Age medicine, yet her health continues to decline, because there is no clear trigger for her expanding list of symptoms.
In Safe‘s best moments, it plays like an existential horror take on Douglas Sirk melodrama (an influence Haynes would later explore more fully in Far From Heaven). As Carol navigates a wide range of possible cures that include self help books, holistic medicines, fad diets, and an impromptu hair perm, the menace of her declining health is played both as a sly joke and as an existential nightmare with a John Carpenter-style score. The only plausible answer offered to the question of her illness is a flyer that reads “Are you allergic to the 20th Century?” That idea leads Carol down a rabbit hole of New Age conspiracy theories about “deep ecology,” “spiritual awareness of the planet,” and “the oneness of all life” that ultimately does her no good, but also no worse than what modern medicine has to offer. Haynes has a lot of fun clashing modern life with Nature in this way, shooting plants on VHS-quality camcorders and juxtaposing pop songs like “Lucky Star” & “Heaven is a Place on Earth” with one-with-the-Earth folk music feel-goodery. Unfortunately, it also feels as if Safe somewhat gets just as lost in examining this New Age bullshit as its slowly dying protagonist, however coldly. Once Carol adjusts to cult life on the “chemical free” commune early in the third act, there isn’t much left to what Safe has to say and all that the audience can do from there is wait for the credits, whereas earlier scenes felt like a nonstop onslaught of existential dread in a much more memorably satisfying way.
Although I’m underwhelmed by Safe’s ultimate destination at the New Age commune, it does lead to a great moment where Carol is pressured into giving a speech for her new cult family. There’s something horrifying about the way she babbles vaguely about toxins & pollutants in that moment with nothing solid or specific to say, especially after watching her suffer physically for so long in the scenes leading up to that moment. Julianne Moore is undeniably one of our greatest living actors and Safe offered her a fantastic early-career spotlight to generate both heartbreaking empathy & frustrating mystery in an existential plight. As much as I feel Safe‘s energy is zapped by its New Age cult criticism focus in its third act, I very much respect Haynes for offering Moore that platform, as well as the ways he managed to turn modern life & paranoia over health into Sirk-tinged horror in earlier sequences. Safe is far from the perfected Haynes heights of its follow-up, Velvet Goldmine, but it’s still memorably menacing all the same.