Starring: Julianne Moore, Xander Berkeley, Steven Gilborn
Director: Todd Haynes
Running Time: 119 mins
Safe is an American film about a California housewife whose life is turned upside down when she develops a mysterious illness that she links to her environment.
A really challenging watch both in terms of its themes and its dramatic gravity, Safe is powerfully unnerving from start to finish, and offers up a complex and thought-provoking look at society that feels uncomfortably relevant to the modern day. That said, however, it’s a film that struggles to engross you in its own story, with its role as an allegory for wider issues far more effective throughout.
There’s a lot about Safe that makes it such an eye-catching watch. Director Todd Haynes’ style, for one, is mesmerising and harrowing at moments. Not only does he helm the film well throughout, with a slick and assured style that means the slow pacing is effective at building atmosphere, but he really pushes the boundaries to unnerve you in every way possible.
So, rather than a purely harrowing horror movie, this film builds and builds with unsettling tension and mystery to the point that it started to really put my mind into a strange place. Much like Julianne Moore’s character, whose world begins to fall apart as she continues to fall inexplicably ill, the direction that the film takes is often so bizarre that it’s difficult to really get your head round.
But this isn’t an abstract, totally ambiguous drama like Mulholland Drive, but rather a shocking and harrowing look at how someone’s life can fall apart so quickly, and seemingly without any way to get a grip on things before they completely fall to pieces.
In that, the film’s perspective on the devastating effects of disease and illness are particularly heavy-going. Meanwhile, it also takes aim at the effects of unrestricted chemicals and emissions in effectively poisoning the natural environment of our everyday lives, looking to serve as a cautionary warning to the further worsening of the issue.
What’s more, Safe’s examination of the spread of disease and its often debilitating consequences work as a very clear allegory to the fear brought about by the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, while it also bears tenuous yet still very unsettling similarities to health concerns in the present day.
And yet, while you can read the film in that regard, Todd Haynes’ slightly ambiguous storytelling and very murky ending leave an entirely opposite interpretation open. Though it may not have been his direct intention, you can look at Safe as a cautionary tale of the dangers of hysteria, hypochondria and those looking to take advantage of people in a weak position.
While the health effects of the mysterious illness that Moore suffers from are undeniably horrifying, the way that the response she’s guided through destroys her life is equally terrifying, as control is taken out of her hands as she begins to move away from her normal life in dramatic fashion.
Those themes are equally relevant to the modern day, and can also serve as cautionary messages for present concerns, which makes Safe a particularly interesting and hard-hitting watch.
However, while those overarching themes are no less than devastatingly powerful, Safe still proves a frustrating watch. Haynes’ style may be strong, Julianne Moore’s performance may be good, but what the film is lacking is personal, emotional drama.
As a result, I found it really difficult to engross myself in this story, and sympathise on a deeper, human level with Moore’s character and the devastating situation she finds herself in. The film is certainly unnerving because of its parallels to the real world, but it’s not an emotionally harrowing watch by any means, and is in fact really quite dull in that regard.
It’s a strange mix that I found myself in here, but while I have to say that the film’s bold and almost unrelentingly dark approach to its main themes is nothing short of extraordinary, its storytelling ability is really lacking, and it’s difficult to remain fully captivated by what’s happening on screen without thinking about wider concerns.
You could argue that Todd Haynes’ main intention here is to get you thinking, rather than to simply entertain. In that vein, he’s done a fantastic job, but it’s at the expense of two hours of film viewing which is far from exhilarating, and seems to miss out on the potential that it so clearly has. That’s why I’m giving Safe a 7.3 overall.