Psycho (1998)
Director: Gus Van Sant. Cast: Vince Vaughn, Anne Heche, Julianne Moore, Viggo Mortensen, William H. Macy, Philip Baker Hall, Robert Forster. Screenplay: Joseph Stefano (based on the novel by Robert Bloch).

Gus Van Sant's much debated, too often derided remake of Psycho is a real director's project. I say this not only because its self-consciously post-modern aim of making a film that has already been made is something only an established talent could get the nerve (or the financing) to do. Rather, contrary to those snakes in the grass with their blaring "How dare you!"'s, and despite Van Sant and photographer Christopher Doyle's nearly wholesale import of Hitchcock and John L. Russell's mise-en-scène, this "tribute" to Hitchcock's original is a nimble balancing act of the original film's story and style against both the contemporary American landscape in which it is reset and the almost forty years of history that have seen Hitch's Psycho become a touchstone as familiar to many grade-schoolers as it is to filmmakers everywhere.

So, even if Van Sant and his team deserve only some of the credit for the new Psycho's tension and fright quotient—and I do think they deserve some—they have earned a whole heaping pile of praise for making a Psycho that functions perfectly on its own terms while polishing this jewel of a thriller into its own bright new gleam. Van Sant's picture is a love letter to Hitchcock and to all of the films that have borrowed from him, filled with allusions and tip-offs as to why the first Psycho worked so well, how it may be read, and how other movie-makers have borrowed its tropes. On top of all this, Van Sant's Psycho is itself technically smooth, acted like gangbusters, and outfitted like a dream. It proclaims its status as a remake but does more than ride the coattails of its classic antecedent. Besides, who cares if this is a remake? Obviously, the original will always be in a class by itself, but that doesn't stop Van Sant's Psycho from being one of the stand-out achievements of a notably dispiriting year of filmmaking.

The first colors that strike us in Psycho are the emerald green behind Saul Bass' reworked title sequence and the vivid orange of Marion Crane's bra as she stretches out in bed with her lover, Sam Loomis. These Carmen Miranda shades are the furthest contrast imaginable from the crisp black and white of the original picture. Right off the bat, then, we know this project will honor the original not just through mimicry—though those classic titles are giddily, precisely reproduced—but by pushing the envelope of just how much may be altered without deviating from the original's cord-tight, monumentally perverse heart and mind.

Still working from Joseph Stefano's script, the first scene establishes in a few quick strokes—make that slashes—that Marion (played by Anne Heche) is a secretary-level office worker who has spent her lunch hour with the virile, cocky, but affectionate Sam (Viggo Mortensen of that other '98 Hitch-redux, A Perfect Murder). Stolen moments like these are the only way their affair can be lived out while Sam is still paying alimony to his first wife, but Marion is feeling the strain and the tawdriness of this erratic, blatantly erotic partnership. "We can have dinner," she tells Sam, who stretches lion-like on the bed, "but respectably, in my house, with Mother's picture on the mantel and my sister and I in the kitchen broiling a steak for three." Marion's quick re-dressing for work showcases the urgency with which she'd like to be upstanding, presentable, as well as her nagging shame at the furtive circumstances of their love-making. Sam's contendedness in the nude demonstrates he is pretty darn happy with the status quo.

Their conversation is the kind between lovers that will count to her as a success because she at least voiced her concerns, but which, based on his sweet but noncommittal reactions, will not necessarily introduce any new patterns or behaviors. Marion, whom Heche plays as a flightier, more tentative woman than Janet Leigh did, but not as a stupid or passive one, is responding primarily to this frightening romantic inertia when she steals the $400,000 cash that her employer asks her to deposit in the bank the afternoon of her no-tell liaison. (It gives next to nothing away to report her theft, but if you haven't seen Psycho or are unfamiliar with its plot, I would hate for you to read on and compromise some momentous shocks.)

Marion, like so many Hitchcock protagonists, is not a bad or immoral person really, but a believably flawed one who perceives one drastic way out of the snare of her normal life and into the dreamworld she thinks she desires. Again, Heche does not have Leigh's poker face, and her sylph-like frame and close-cropped beauty emphasize the agitated thoughts and revolving emotions of this character more than her personal warmth and casual voluptuousness. Both takes on the part work for the story, and while Leigh's will obviously remain the icon, Heche's turn demonstrates that one of our most daring actresses still hasn't met a challenge she hasn't liked; her intuitive, fierce, and brightly sympathetic talents better not be wasted by a Hollywood preoccupied by bedroom behaviors. Yep, I digress, but yep, she's terrific.

Part of the shock of Psycho has always been that Marion dies so suddenly and brutally after such a short time in the picture; the greater part of that shock, as Roger Ebert for one has observed, is that there is nothing casual or compressed about Marion's screen presence while she is the central figure in the story. Her motives are so clear, her thoughts so literally broadcast, that nothing prepares us for her sudden and terrible exit once she checks in at the Bates Motel. More transpires in that shower scene, however, than a mere (if mesmerizing) transfer of protagonists. The most eccentric features of Psycho's opening—Marion's protagonist role, compared to her male lover's sexual objectification; the soundtrack's revelation not only of her internal conflicts but of entire, multi-voiced dialogues she imagines among the poor sops left in her wake; the cipherish and constantly watchful police officer who tails her; and the almost capricious decision to stop at a Motel only 15 miles from her destination—are careful, clever, and unbelievably rich moves in creating a film that seems to embody Marion's mind's-eye vision of her own predicament more than a realistic view of the world around her.

I mean, would any cop but a cop in a nightmare be so dogged or so successful at tracking her? Doesn't the rain start and stop a little suddenly and dramatically to seem quite real? By eliciting from Heche a more psychological performance than a physical one, Van Sant immediately marks his Psycho as a psychoanalytic and probing re-reading of the first picture, not just a rote reprise. When Marion, ashamed of her sexual behaviors and strangely stalled in the last lap of her voyage toward gratification, is killed in the shower, it is not just her storyline that is punctured and abandoned, but her entire projected consciousness. Psycho to that point shows us the impulsive and optimistic but earnest world of Marion's dreams—and like showers, dreams are not a terrain where we expect to be assailable or vulnerable.

Van Sant and his cast's reorganization of these characters as mental types—which will later include Mortensen as a snakier Sam than John Gavin's and a Lila from Julianne Moore that is more thoroughly stern and suspicious than Vera Miles' original—invites us more clearly to see Psycho as a combat zone of different, well delineated egos (if that doesn't make this bite-your-nails thrill ride sound too hoity-toity). Marion's mental state is succinctly but powerfully represented by the stifling city she fled and the liberating, open, but dangerous and increasingly hard to navigate road she took as a way out. Once Psycho becomes Norman's story, the physical vocabulary changes. We see blood—messy humanity—swept into the black hole of a shower drain. We see a car full of compromising, threatening artifacts submerged beneath a swamp. Images of suppression, cleansing, and disguised appearances become the norm for a film that emanates increasingly from the mind of a dangerously repressed personality.

Van Sant's encouragement to his cast to "play" in large script the attitude of their characters is of course a bigger tip-off to the sinister loomings on the film's horizon than we got from the comparatively, well, "normal people" Hitchcock brought out of his actors. So Van Sant tips his hand a little; as I said, it's not like the guy's pretending this is the first time you've seen the movie. And again, since the first Psycho was as subtle and tricky as a thriller comes, this version can give you a teensy bit more of a clue where it's going and still seem as confounding as Rorschach next to any other slasher film it's competing against at the multiplex.

Some of the biggest attacks of broad over-playing have been leveled at Vince Vaughn, the new Norman Bates, who starts the picture as the ultimate Mama's boy (no, really) and ends it as a lost and hollowed-out humang being. Vaughn, it's true, reveals more of Norman's psychoses than Anthony Perkins did in the latter's triumphantly quiet and effete performance. Vaughn is not yet a conditioned enough actor to match Perkins' example—who in his age-group is?—but again, his work also functions perfectly well in the re-reading of Psycho that the new version offers. His skittishness and vague agitation make him a more immediately obvious companion-piece to Marion than in the first picture. Norman, who describes a mother he loves too much to hate and whose authority he cannot bring himself to deny, embodies those trapped qualities in Marion she most wants to escape: resenting a person she loves (Sam), and accepting a crummy lot in life. Remember, she's had that secretary post, and sat in front of all those lecherous clients, for ten years.

There's a new frisson to what happens between Marion and Norman, even before The Big Scene, now that they seem—not just on reflection, but on immediate appearance—to be weirdly compatible, or at least cut out of the same cloth. The fact that Norman introduces the language of "traps" and sees right into Marion's predicament makes him at least as incisive a psychiatrist as the one who concludes the film. Invariably, like understands like in this picture, which is why Marion's anxious and exasperated sister Lila is able to follow the thought process of the similarly analytical Investigator Arbogast (William H. Macy), and why Sam upon meeting Norman is able to mock his desperation and insecurity so easily: they belong to him as much as to Norman.

I keep cataloguing the formal doublings and eruptions of plot that make both Psychos such wizardly entertainments. Enthusiasm overwhelms me, but it does seem important to remember that all of the complexities that enriched Hitchcock's film are just as rewarding in Van Sant's version, even if the plot and delivery are not of his invention. Van Sant does, however, ornament his film with small touches—a basement aviary in the Bates mansion that recalls the moth-nursery catacombs in The Silence of the Lambs, the employment of Doyle's lighting designs from the films of Wong Kar-Wai—that remind us how many hallmarks of contemporary film were so clearly inspired by motifs from this picture, such that the same borrowed elements fit neatly back into Psycho the second time around.

Another neat touch is the way that Van Sant elides the moment in the original where Arbogast calls Lila and tells her that Sam cannot possibly be responsible for Marion's death. Sam—especially as played by my man Viggo, but even in his 1960 white-bread version—is not an especially sympathetic or trustable guy, and I like that Van Sant doesn't stretch himself washing the dirt from around Sam's edges. I also like the way that Julianne Moore, who just gets better and better, never stops distrusting Sam and even cocks her eye irritateldy at him when they are forced to impersonate a married couple for the purposes of their investigation. Finally, the extension of the film's final shot, where the camera not only pulls Marion's car out of the swamp but surveys the multitude of policemen and investigators riveted by the spectacle, is a clever indicator of how many folks have plundered Hitchock's waters for inspiration and taken away from them some pretty cool artifacts.

The neon hues of Doyle's cinematography and Beatrix Aruna Pasztor's costumes accentuate the sickly state of most of the psyches on display in this picture. Full-blooded or less queasy colors would not be appropriate to a film laid across such a gradient of mental illness and unrest. Unlike Hitchcock's preceding North By Northwest, this picture is driven more by character than by plot, and Van Sant's palette is faithful to their addled-ness, while allowing comparatively stable folks like Macy's detective and Moore's Lila to feature sturdier tones in their dress. Norman rides both sides of the color regimen, wearing subdued blacks and blues when he is under control (i.e., when he is "Norman") but choosing florid and fluorescent prints when his symptoms of mental disease take their most visible, fully realized form.

And just since I thought it was cool, can I just take a moment to mention this? Marion, en route to the dealership where she trades in her car, passes a bus-stop with a large poster advertising Six Days, Seven Nights, starring Anne Heche. Blink and you miss it, but Van Sant has even preserved Hitchcock's trademark visual wit.

Psycho, clearly a labor of love and discernment, is an independently strong picture that also comments smartly on the driving elements in its source material. In these respects, it recalls Scorsese's 1991 update of Cape Fear. Like that picture it is a tightly-wound entertainment that slows down when necessary and doles out its shocks deliberately and definitively. Of course a lot of the legwork had already been done for the new team, but how many pictures or performances come out in a given year that aren't just as familiar in their way as the ones we enjoy here? Did you see Armageddon, and if (probably) so, did anything in it surprise you? Wasn't it essentially a remake, though less obviously or honestly so, of ten movies you'd seen before—and not particularly good ones at that?

Van Sant knows there's a paucity of fresh ideas out there, but neither the audacity of his earlier films (To Die For, My Own Private Idaho) nor the energy and playfulness of this one allow us to assume that just because he's staged a remake, his own filmmaking muse has dried up. Unlike the fantastically overrated A Simple Plan, which thinks it's offering us something new with all those tedious crow shots and snowscapes, Psycho acknowledges its debt to the past but embarks on its own creative risks and spirited inventions. The acting is almost flawless. The look of the film entrances.

Psycho's ads supply their own perfect answer for those worryworts and naysayers who seem to want this picture burned at the stake. Relax, they declaim. Check in. A–


Awards:
Boston Society of Film Critics: Best Supporting Actor (Macy; tie; also cited for A Civil Action and Pleasantville)

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