One of the primary purposes of film is to put the audience in the shoes of its main characters. Almost no other film does this better than Clean, Shaven (1993) directed by Lodge Kerrigan. Through a truly revolutionary use of sound and abstract visuals, Clean, Shaven depicts a fragmented and frightening world seen through the eyes of its schizophrenic protagonist, Peter Winter (Peter Greene).
Clean, Shaven is a simple yet provocative and tragic portrait of a man who has only one ambition left: to find his daughter. It is this obsession that drives him forward, despite the deafening noises and images in his head. He lives in a world that is full of pain, fear, paranoia and sound that never ends. It beats down upon him like waves, pummeling him until there is nothing left of his “self.” In one of the film’s most memorable scenes he attempts to shave and cut his hair in a hotel bathroom. This seemingly simple task alludes him and he cuts himself repeatedly. As the blood runs down his face and into the sink, he seems oblivious to the pain or perhaps the pain is better than the agony he is experiencing in his head. The simple act of cutting his hair and shaving his face is his futile attempt to appear normal when he is anything but (hence the movie’s title).
The focus of the film is placed almost solely on Peter with only short diversions as we follow the detective who is investigating the child murder(s) and his daughter’s adoptive mother. This is purposefully done so as to not distract from Peter Winter, who acts as the film’s (broken) compass. We follow Peter on a road trip of sorts across a non-disclosed area of the United States. He is in search of his daughter who was born before his symptoms had fully manifested and has since been adopted. At the beginning of the film, Peter is released from treatment and steals a car to begin his search. Peter Winter is an incredibly lonely protagonist who, due to his mental illness, has become alienated from his mother, daughter and the rest of the world. At no point in the film do you believe that he might be able to escape the prison of his mind. One can only hope that he might be able to experience some glimmer of light in all the darkness. Perhaps finding his daughter will provide that light.
There are very few speaking roles in the film and Peter is nearly mute. On his journey to find his daughter Peter visits his mother, whom he apparently has not seen in years. This is an emotionally charged moment in the film. Although Peter is “home,” he does not feel safe or at ease. His mother is unsympathetic and hectoring. Even in the house where he grew up, the constant barrage of sound does not dissipate. The whine of the refrigerator, the hum of the fan or a fly hovering over their lunch are amplified tenfold. He only stays with his mother for one night and as he is leaving she does not say goodbye but continues to clean fish as if he was never there (a truly haunting scene)!
The film doesn’t really fit into one genre. It is primarily a character study. It is also (loosely) a detective story that asks the question: did he or didn’t he? The plot unfolds nonlinearly; scenes from the past, present, future are offered up without context and it’s up to the audience to make their own judgments as to what is what. Many of the details of the plot are never made clear. For example, how did his wife die? Was he released or did he escape from treatment? Is he responsible for the murder of a young girl or girls? Seeing the world through Peter’s eyes, we wonder if what we see on screen are memories, imaginings or reality. As such, you must eventually let go of any expectation of a “normal” movie viewing experience. You must stop asking the typical questions, “why,” “what,” “how” and follow where Peter’s mind will take you. This leaves you feeling confused and definitely out of control. I believe that this is exactly the viewing experience the director was after and he pulls it off masterfully. We naturally try to find order and sense from experience but in this movie there is little of either.
It must be noted that this film is not for the faint of heart. Though it is only about an hour and thirty minutes long, it is an utterly exhausting experience. I have never felt so drained after watching a film, save after watching the nearly four hour Hard to Be a God (2013) directed by Aleksey German. Clean, Shaven assaults your senses from start to finish, to the point that you feel nearly driven to madness yourself. No other film has painted such an intimate and visceral portrait of what it might be like inside the mind of someone with severe mental illness.
Though many viewers will most likely shy away from its graphic imagery, obtrusive and jarring use of sound and grim subject matter, they do so at the risk of missing out on a brave and stunning piece of film making. Not only is this film game changing in its use of sound and visuals to convey plot, mood, feelings and themes (very difficult to pull off) but also the way it tackles an important subject matter. Mental illness is a serious issue that many people (those with the illness, their friends and families) struggle with every day. Though this film may not necessarily be a pleasant viewing experience, it sheds light on a portion of our population that is too often overlooked and not given a voice. Clean, Shaven provides that voice and it can’t be ignored.