At this point you should know what you’re getting into with a Guy Maddin picture and whether or not you’ll enjoy it will practically be predetermined by the time you enter the theater. His latest feature Keyhole comes slightly more updated in its unearthed cinematic touchstones. While past Maddin films felt like the long lost footage of an obscure Euopean silent epic edited together by a madman with plenty of Freudian issues, this movie feels like two lost 30s Hollywood B-pictures edited together by a madman with plenty of Freudian issues. That’s enough to make it stand out as his first non-autobiographical work in years, pleasing those missing Maddin’s old movie geek ways. As always, the director makes no attempt to pander to the mainstream. If you don’t enjoy being confounded and disturbed in equal measure, then this guy really isn’t for you.
Keyhole plays like a bizarre cross between a 30s tough guy gangster picture and a haunted house movie before spiraling off into the oddities of Maddinville, Manitoba. Jason Patric stars as a hardboiled gangster named Ulysses Pick who spits out orders to his crew as they take shelter from the cops in an abandoned house. Once there, it becomes clear that the house isn’t just a hideout, but a place from Ulysses’ past. The ghost of his late wife Hycinth (Isabella Rossellini) resides upstairs and Ulysses wants her to free the ghosts of her sons. This being a Madden movie, this involves using locks of her hair as keys and electrocuting one of the boys with a bike-powered electric chair. There are a number of other ghosts roaming around the house as well, including a naked old man who operates a wooden penis switch with his mouth and a strange young guy under the stairs who likes to scream “Yahtzee!” while masturbating furiously. I think I should probably stop with an attempt at plot description now. It’s not really not that kind of movie.
For the first 20 minutes or so, Keyhole plays like one of Maddin’s most accessible projects before spiraling off into nightmare logic. Watching it is almost like flipping between two old genre movies on late night TV before passing out and having the twin narratives continued in your dreams. Like much of the filmmaker’s work, it can be hard to pinpoint exactly what he’s getting at, but that almost isn’t really the point. His movies are more cinematic experiences in perverse unconscious images than narratives with tidy themes. Getting lost in the perverse images and sounds is all too easy, filled with pleasures of their own, so it’s best not to bother with questions like “why” and merely go along with the ride.
There are a couple of factors that distinguish Keyhole from most of the director’s work. First of all, he brings in recognizable actors like Patric, Rossellini, and the always delightfully insane Udo Kier. They don’t distract from the abstract narrative and are game to play in the surreal sandbox, delivering eccentric performances to match the visuals. Patric was always underused as a leading man, so it’s nice to see him revive that role here even if it’s about as far away from Hollywood filmmaking as possible. McDonald seems a little out of his depth, but gets laughs even out of confusion. Rossellini and Kier are actors who often seem like they’re acting in their own movie on any project they work on, so they fit in to the wacko ensemble well. The other big change for Maddin is that the film is his first shot digitally and thankfully that in no-way detracts from his aesthetic. While he might not actually be shooting on old film stock, the post-production manipulation nails the film flicker and high-contrast monochrome look perfectly. Nothing is lost and if this cheaper method of photography will help increase his production rate, then power to him.
As a filmmaker, Guy Maddin is one of a kind to say the least. He’s got a singular vision that carries over to every project without ever feeling overplayed or repetitive. Keyhole offers both more of the same and something completely different. Fans of the director will hungrily devour his latest offering while outsiders will continue their confusion. Simply put, it’s a wild and heady ride guaranteed to sear images onto your brain that will be there for the remainder of your life whether you like it or not. Maddin is a national treasure of nightmarish imagery and his latest movie is just the latest chapter in an ongoing career of perverse experimental brilliance.