Forget horror movies. Clean, Shaven (1993) is the scariest movie you’ll ever see. This is the debut film of Lodge Kerrigan, who directed and produced it. The plot follows two characters; a schizophrenic and a policeman. The policeman is tasked with tracking the schizophrenic, who has escaped from a mental institution and is traveling across the country searching for his daughter. It is suggested that he has committed a murder, but he seems unsure or unaware. The murder is never shown on screen, but there are more terrifying things to see.
Clean, Shaven is like nails on a chalkboard for an hour and twenty minutes. Early in the film, the character cuts his hair with a pair of rusty scissors, puncturing his scalp in the process, but he keeps going, driven by some masochistic urge. At one point, he digs a fingernail out of his hand with a knife. As the film opens, he is cleaning his car. His shaky hands remove clumps of cigarette butts from an ashtray. He wraps his mirrors in newspaper and smashes the window to eliminate his reflection. Peter Greene, in the starring role, radiates panic at all times, from all angles. The car itself becomes a kind of isolation chamber for him. He lives in it, and it bears the trappings of his scatterbrained lifestyle. There are piles of garbage on the seats, the windows are covered with paper. The car is a dirty hunk of metal falling apart at the seams, barely able to contain the man inside. Barrelling down the highway at top speed, the character opens his door and considers jumping out, but recants when he notices a truck full of men giving him the eye. Who knows if they were even real?
The movie has a fascinating narrative structure. It is told from the subjective perspective of the main character, and it is never clear what degree of hallucination we are witnessing. A series of complex filmmaking techniques recreate the effects of schizophrenia for us, and although I’m not sure how accurately they portray the symptoms, they certainly make the paranoia tangible. We get tracking shots of telephone wires moving across a grey sky. It’s not a P.O.V. shot, just a vision. We zoom in on a bucket of fish heads surrounded by buzzing flies, taking up more and more of the frame as they take up more and more of the character’s mind. As the character melts down in a library, he enjoys a bizarre delusion of a man rattling a chain-link fence somewhere in the city. This is coupled with sounds of a dog growling, broken radio static and images of a person scratching at burnt skin on their chest. Suddenly, the dream is over, and we pull back on the main character banging his head against the shelves in the library as onlookers frown, then return to their books.
Clean, Shaven exists as a disjunctive string of compound images, beautifully-assembled to maximize the disturbing effect. It is difficult to sit still watching the film, because the content is so jarring and the execution so grating. What’s amazing is that it feels totally complete. It is difficult to even see the editor or the sound designer at work, they have made their art so invisible. The flashbacks and hallucinations are strung together naturally and they don’t feel like a break from the narrative technique we’ve been experiencing. They are completely in keeping with the rest of the film. The whole thing feels like one uninterrupted head trip.
Clean, Shaven is an experiment, and a very successful one. It lacks the characteristics of a fully-formed film, but it pushes first-person filmmaking further than it has ever been pushed. It is a more effective than the literalism of, say, Lady in the Lake (1947). It is, hopefully, the kind of film that can break barriers for future filmmakers, who will make use of its innovative techniques.