Film review: 'Keyhole' spins 1930s gangster plot with Homer's 'Odyssey'

For a variety of cultural, financial and governmental reasons, Canadian filmmakers produce films that tend to be conventional — even bland. There are two great exceptions to this. The obvious one is David Cronenberg: Even those who hate “The Fly,” “Dead Ringers” and the rest would be unlikely to regard him as bland; many of them probably wish he were more so.

The less obvious exception (for reasons of relative obscurity) is Guy Maddin — the Madman of Manitoba, the Weirdo from Winnepeg — whose latest film, “Keyhole,” has just sneaked into town. Like most of Maddin's work, “Keyhole” employs “out of date” film devices — both in sincere admiration for their now-underused power and with an awareness of how funny their incongruity can be.

In this case, he takes elements of Homer's “Odyssey” and reworks them in the manner of a ’30s gangster movie — albeit, one that has more to do with Salvador Dali and Luis Bunuel than with James Cagney. This is definitely neither “Wrath of the Titans” nor “White Heat.”

The hero, gang boss Ulysses Pick (Jason Patric), arrives home after an absence of unclear length to reconnect with his wife, Hyacinth (Isabella Rossellini), and whichever children may still be alive.

In the house they live in, however, it's not always easy to distinguish between the quick and the dead. Ulysses sends his gang in first, even though the cops are already on hand. His second-in-command, Big Ed (Daniel Enright), complains, “Why did he just have us shoot our way into a building that's completely surrounded?”

Trying to sort out the casualties, Big Ed announces, “Those of you who have been killed, stand facing the wall,” before sending them back out into no man's land. “Don't worry,” he adds, “the cops will make sure you get to the morgue.”

Ulysses arrives shortly thereafter, accompanied by a gagged hostage (whom he doesn't recognize as his last remaining son) and a young drowned woman, who seems to have come back to life. When the doctor (Udo Kier) arrives, he is quite certain she's dead: “She's waterlogged; there's nothing that can be done.” Naturally, this doesn't stop her from participating in the action.

The central spirit in the house is Hyacinth's aged father (Louis Negin), who is chained to his daughter's bed, completely (full frontally) naked; he intermittently serves as narrator. At the same time, it is clear that the house represents Ulysses' psyche or his past or a recurrent dream or — something. Perhaps all of the above. As allegory, this might sound numbingly pretentious, but it's not allegory. Maddin is not the least bit coy about these readings; the characters themselves seem aware of these possibilities.

It should already be obvious that “Keyhole” is not for everyone. A few of my closest friends can't make it through Maddin's films, while the rest find them both intriguing and entertaining. If you want to dip your toes in the water before committing to a night out, you could rent “Careful,” “The Saddest Music in the World” or “My Winnepeg” for an arguably more accessible sample. Maddin is definitely an acquired taste, but one richly worth acquiring.

ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on “FilmWeek” on KPCC-FM (89.3).

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