Director: Todd Haynes
Screenplay: Todd Haynes
Stars: Julianne Moore (Carol White), Xander Berkeley (Greg White), Peter Friedman (Peter Dunning), James Legros (Chris), Mary Carver (Nell)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 1995
Country: U.S.
Safe Criterion Collection Blu-ray
SafeTodd Haynes’s deeply unsettling horror-melodrama Safe is one of the most unusual and original chase films ever made. As Alfred Hitchcock noted in a New York Times interview in 1950, “The chase seems to me the final expression of the motion picture medium.” Of course, what Hitchcock was referring to was the literal chase—the action of one person or entity physically pursuing another. Safe is not like that at all. Rather, it is an internal chase film, centered on characters who are chasing after illusions and therefore going no place at all. In a sense, then, Safe can be seen as the ultimate refutation of Hitchcock’s claim, instead suggesting that movies can be just as powerful and compelling in conveying stasis, which is what makes it such a deeply uncomfortable viewing experience.

The story takes place in Southern California in the late 1980s. We are introduced to Carol White (Julianne Moore), a young woman who appears to lead a charmed life in the lap of luxury. Her husband, Greg (Xander Berekeley), is handsome and wealthy (although not very attentive emotionally), and he provides her with an enormous home in the San Fernando Valley and tasks her with little more than ensuring it is beautifully furnished and maintained by their staff of maids (she describes herself at one point as a “homemaker”). She spends her days attending aerobics classes, lunching at fashionable spots with her similarly wealthy friends, and shopping. Her greatest exasperation is the delivery of a teal-colored sectional sofa when she wanted black. “That’s impossible,” she says when told she ordered the teal sofa. “It doesn’t go with anything we have.” Even though Greg has an adolescent son by a previous marriage, Carol doesn’t seem to have any real responsibility in looking after or mothering him.

As a result, Carol is something of an empty vessel, a blank slate who doesn’t seem to have an original idea or genuine impulse beyond maintaining the bounds of her comfortable status quo (her last name, White, certainly brings to mind her white privilege, but it also conveys a void). Julianne Moore, who at the time was a relatively unknown actress with a few stand-out supporting roles in films like Short Cuts (1993) and Benny & Joon (1993), plays up Carol’s physical and spiritual fragility, especially in her voice, which sounds like it emanates softly from the back of her throat, rather than in her chest (the seat of her heart and soul). There is no jouissance in her life; everything feels scripted, as if she is an actor in her own life just going through the motions (the lack of any kind of backstory or obvious psychological motivations only intensifies her sense of absence in her own existence).

Thus, when Carol begins to suffer physically from some inexplicable environmental disease, it is virtually impossible to determine her own culpability. Is it all in her head (is she the clichéd Freudian hysteric, a victim of her own repressed desires and emotions?) or is she genuinely afflicted by the environment in which she lives? As a kind of riff on the traditional “woman’s film” of the 1950s (something Haynes and Moore would explore again in a completely different vein with 2002’s Far From Heaven), the tendency is to lean toward the former and blame her repressed psychological state, which doesn’t even allow for the outward expression of sexual enjoyment. She doesn’t really connect with anyone—not her husband, who is frustrated primarily by her dwindling sex drive, and not her friends, whose conversations suggest no real interpersonal intimacy but rather shallow social convention—which leaves her literally trapped inside her own body and painfully alone. The emotional isolation that defines her existence makes it doubly terrifying when her body begins to turn on her, leaving her lethargic and sickly and inexplicable to those around her who think that a better diet or exercise will cure her.

Yet, at the same time, everything about the film’s flat, affected style suggests that the environment is to blame. Safe is not so much about the characters as it is about the world in which they live. Haynes, who was following his remarkable and controversial feature film debut Poison (1991), turns the mundane into something relentlessly threatening because it is literally inescapable—the absolute opposite of “safety.” How do you get better when it is the world itself that is making you sick? What do you do when your safe haven—your home, the place that is often thought of as a respite from the dangers of the outside world—is an insidious aggressor? There’s nowhere to turn, nowhere to go.

Carol eventually escapes to a Wrenwood, a sterile holistic center in the woods near Albuquerque, New Mexico, founded by Peter Dunning (Peter Friedman), a seemingly nonthreatening New Age-y guru in khakis. Wrenwood promises escape from the modern world, a return to the natural environment, and therefore the hope of healing for its various members, all of whom suffer from various unnamed environmental illnesses. Yet, once again Haynes raises questions that leave us with an unsettling sense of dislocation. While Wrenwood is a sanctuary of sorts, it also has the eerily distressing aura of a cult that keeps its members away from the world with promises of health that never seem to come (as much as Carol asserts that she’s getting better, she looks worse and worse as the film progresses). Wrenwood unnerves us because everything about it suggests that “sanity” is an entirely subjective concept. In the “normal” world, Carol’s illness makes no sense to her friends and family, but out in the wilderness with others like her, it all comes together. The question is whether she is actually benefitting or if it is all just a ruse, a question that Haynes ultimately refuses to answer.

As an environmental parable, Safe suggests that we have sown the seeds of our own eventual destruction, but Haynes is never so obvious as that, and his intense focus on Carol keeps the film from becoming a soap box even as it clearly indicts certain aspects of modern society. The most unnerving thing about Safe’s is how it draws our attention to the overwhelming prevalence of chemicals in our modern world, in everything from dry-cleaning detergent, to deodorant, to hair treatment, to car exhaust. Virtually everything into which Carol comes into contact is a chemical construct, even in the most placid of circumstances, and thus her environment becomes a silent monster, slowly but surely killing her (the monster is all the more monstrous for not being obviously, visually threatening). Haynes and cinematographer Alex Nepomniaschy (Narc) use primarily medium shots and long shots to constantly emphasize the presence of the environment, which close-ups naturally eliminate. Carol is always trapped by the world in which she lives, which robs her of any sense of control. For all its disquiet, Safe is truly about the terror of losing control—or, even more frightening, being made aware of the fact that we never had control to begin with.

Safe Criterion Collection Director-Approved Blu-ray

Aspect Ratio1.85:1
AudioEnglish Linear PCM 1.0 Monaural
  • Audio commentary featuring Haynes, actor Julianne Moore, and producer Christine Vachon
  • New conversation between Haynes and Moore
  • The Suicide, a 1978 short film by Haynes
  • New interview with Vachon
  • Trailer
  • Essay by critic Dennis Lim
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateDecember 9, 2014

    Safe’s gorgeous cinematography is beautifully rendered in Criterion’s new 4K digital transfer, which is a welcome replacement for Sony’s old 2001 DVD, which despite boasting an anamorphic transfer, didn’t do the film real justice. Criterion’s transfer was made from the original 35mm camera negative under the supervision of director Todd Haynes, and it looks magnificent. The film’s broad range of palettes—from icy blue skies, to the grays of downtown Los Angeles, to the earthen tones of the New Mexico desert—are all gorgeously rendered with excellent detail and depth. The film’s monaural soundtrack was transferred at 24-bit from a 35mm magnetic track and it also sounds excellent. The film’s disquieting electronic soundtrack has superb depth and fidelity, and even though it’s a mono mix, the environmental sounds are still quite effective in drawing us into the film’s world.
    From the 2001 Sony disc we get an intriguing audio commentary by director Todd Haynes, actress Julianne Moore, and producer Christine Vachon. To build on that, Criterion has also included a new 16-minute interview with Vachon and a new 36-minute video discussion between Haynes and Moore, which allows them to look back at the film from a greater temporal distance and in light of their subsequent collaboration on Far From Heaven (2002) and I’m Not There (2007). Haynes and Moore’s discussion is quite heady, and you can see why Safe works so well: because it was clear from the beginning that director and actress were completely on the same page about the film’s tone, themes, direction, etc. Also included on the disc are a trailer and The Suicide, a 20-minute short film Haynes made in 1978 that, until very recently, he thought was lost (we could only wish in our wildest dreams that Criterion could have somehow included Superstar, but the Carpenter estate has seen to it that that will never happen).

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    Overall Rating: (4)

    James Kendrick

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