THE STORY – Environmental illness sends a California wife (Julianne Moore) to a New Age guru’s clinic in New Mexico.
THE CAST – Julianne Moore, Peter Friedman, Xander Berkeley, Susan Norman, Kate McGregor-Stewart & James LeGros
THE TEAM – Todd Haynes (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 119 Minutes
Ensconced in the pale, garish pastels of 1987, Carol White (Julianne Moore) seems to have it all. She and her husband (Xander Berkeley) are renovating their spacious home in the Los Angeles suburbs, and despite all the mental and physical labor, she never even breaks a sweat in her aerobics class. But one day, she has an uncontrollable coughing fit while driving behind a truck that sends dirt and fumes right through her open window. From there, she only gets worse – suffering a nosebleed while getting a perm, becoming unable to breathe at a baby shower, fainting at her dry cleaners – and her doctor can’t find anything wrong with her. From a flyer posted in her health club, she finds a group for people suffering from “environmental illness” and believes she has found the answer. Will a specialized community in the desert help cure her?
Even at the time of its release in 1995, Todd Haynes’s “Safe” was a period piece, but it has only felt more current with each passing year. While the setting draws a clear parallel between Carol’s illness and the AIDS epidemic, the purposeful ambiguity of what’s happening to her turns it into an allegory that can apply to almost anything. It can just as easily be read as a commentary on the enforced conformity of polite society, the environment in general, how women are treated by men or countless other subjects. After the pandemic lockdowns of 2020, “Safe” feels eerily prescient in its presentation of a protagonist who feels like the surest way to combat her illness is to isolate herself from everyone and everything else. The utility of Haynes’s allegory only burnishes the film’s reputation as one of the best of the ’90s, especially since so much of the film doubles as a satirical jab at specific pieces of ’80s and ’90s culture that have only gotten more pronounced in the 2000s, like the obsessive attention to surface perfection.
Conceiving an allegory that can be so readily applied to so many things is a feat in and of itself. However, Haynes’s execution of his concept ensures that “Safe” is still tremendous even when taken at face value as a horror-flecked, lightly satirical psychodrama. While Haynes films with an almost clinical remove from his characters, he utilizes cinematic technique in such potent ways that the audience can’t help but feel something. The action of many scenes takes place deep within the frame, either in the background or in a confined corner, making Carol feel small and out of place. However, the camera slowly pushes in whenever Carol has one of her attacks, creating the feeling that her very surroundings are closing in and suffocating her. The sound mix also increases in intensity during the attacks, slowly bringing her heavy breathing to the front as her hysteria increases. Carol’s first attack in her car – one of the film’s many master classes in building tension – has the sticky, inescapable feeling of a nightmare: As Carol drives her car in circles around a parking garage, trying to find a safe space to pull over, the sound, camera, and editing work in glorious harmony to put the audience in the middle of a whirlwind.
Many of the cinematic techniques Haynes deploys put distance between the audience and the characters, but Julianne Moore is so transfixing that you get drawn in anyway. Everything that has made Moore one of the most indelible performers of our time is present here, in one of her first major roles. Pitching her voice up to a fluty, almost whispered register and freezing her face into a placid, unreadable mask wherever she can, Moore utilizes every weapon in her arsenal to create a fully realized portrayal. Carol always seems to be on the outside looking in, even as regards her own life. She is always apart from the group, a step behind everyone else. She rarely expresses an opinion of her own except when it comes to her illness, and even then, it feels begrudging, her last-ditch effort to save herself. Moore gives the impression that Carol’s very surroundings are constricting her in such a way that she cannot express her true self. When she goes to a psychiatrist for help with her condition, she says that she thought he would ask more questions. Still, when he finally asks her what is happening inside her, she quiets down, her face disengaging from the conversation and becoming that silent, passive mask that seems to be her default. Moore reveals more through her stillness than most actresses do through movement, revealing just as much about Carol through what she doesn’t do as what she does. For her first major role, it’s an astonishing performance, one that makes it immediately clear that Moore is one of the greats.
Carol spends the whole film searching for a cure for her illness – for her innermost self – but even at Wrenwood, the community of others suffering from the same mysterious environmental illness, she doesn’t find it. A sore grows on her forehead. After wandering the property, she finds the border with the rest of the world, and the shock triggers her. She feels the need to go into even further isolation, leading to the film’s haunting final scene. Intentionally ambiguous, Moore’s delivery as Carol repeats “I love you” to herself in a mirror feels both mournful and hopeful, an elegy for who she could have been and a hope that she can still somehow become that person. Haynes fills her world with all sorts of psychological triggers – peer pressure from other women, dismissive, controlling men, and social structures – in addition to the environmental triggers surrounding her with reasons to hide herself. While at Wrenwood, other community members talk excitedly and openly about the work they did on themselves and how good it feels in a spot-on satirization of new-age self-help speak. Carol eventually speaks about how she feels being in the community has helped her, but Moore brilliantly plays it as though Carol is trying to talk in a language she doesn’t fully understand, tripping over the words and using phrases in the wrong context. It becomes clear that through this ordeal, Carol does not know who she really is anymore and perhaps hasn’t for some time. She keeps allowing others to dictate what she says, does, and even thinks. Even at Wrenwood, the leader is a man who has created a cult-like atmosphere. The distance between the audience and Carol makes it difficult to determine how much of this she recognizes, making her complicity in her own illness a fascinating mystery.
The film’s many ambiguities ensure that every audience member will come out of the film with a different interpretation, one of the many reasons why “Safe” has seen its reputation grow over the years since its release. While the ambiguous ending surely leaves many people unsatisfied, it also makes the discussion more interesting and revealing afterward. The ambiguity is very much the point, and Haynes uses it to encourage the audience to do what Carol cannot: Dig within themselves to learn how to express what they’re feeling. Haynes has made a film set in a specific time and place that is in part about a different time and place, and as time has gone on, the film has only grown more prescient, with more to say about society and human nature as our way of life has changed. The film’s timeless quality is a testament to the sturdiness of Haynes’s concept as well as his incredible technical execution. In the nearly 30 years since its release, “Safe” has proven itself as one of the best films of the ’90s. In another 30 years, hopefully, people will have caught up and realized that it’s not just one of the best films of its decade but one of the best films of all time.