The latest phantasmagoria of cinematic quotation from Canadian director Guy Maddin, Keyhole is an extremely loose adaptation of The Odyssey. Jason Patric plays Ulysses Pick, leader of a two-bit gang who, carrying a nearly drowned girl on his back, returns home after a long absence. With his criminal accomplices confined to the downstairs sitting room, Ulysses journeys through the labyrinthine house, joined by the girl (Brooke Palsson) and a bound-and-gagged hostage (David Wontner), who Ulysses doesn’t immediately realize is his only living son, Manners. Ulysses’s goal is to reach the attic bedroom where his wife, Hyacinth (Isabella Rossellini), lays next to her naked elderly father (Louis Negin), chained to her bed. The father lures his son-in-law with a siren call—”Remember, Ulysses, remember”—but the house is full of roadblocks in the form of locked doors, debilitating visions of the past, and inchoate anxieties brought to life.
A swirling stew of Maddin’s pet themes—family ties, irrepressible sexuality, the weather—the filmmaker has described Keyhole as a departure, an exercise in “pure narrative filmmaking.” This seems like Maddin’s playful attempt at misdirection, given that his film’s structure is not only nonlinear, but also less narrative than architectural: It doesn’t move from scene to scene, but rather from room to room. In his last feature, the fabricated “nonfiction” My Winnipeg, Maddin’s gaze was distracted away from his hometown by the powerful psychic pull of his childhood home. Keyhole, set in the same house, further emphasizes the home’s vacuum power: The movie is a schematic of a haunted mansion, the house itself a physical stand-in for a dreaming, troubled mind. The film is infectiously somnambulant, so convincingly and unrelentingly dreamlike that its sudden end mimics the sensation of snapping awake from deep sleep.
But whose dream is it? Who is haunted, and who is doing the haunting? Shot digitally in chiaroscuro black-and-white, nearly every frame complicated by multiple exposure effects and strategically harsh lighting, Keyhole is stunning to look at. But it’s so resistant to subjectivity, so much about obfuscation and the deceptive nature of the mind’s eye, that it can be frustrating to look deeply into. Every image in a Guy Maddin picture is a reference, a fragment of the collective past reconfigured through his fetishistic filter. In Keyhole, this includes the actors; the casting of Patric, in particular, seems intended to draw on his past screen images, to realize the joke of reincarnating a 1930s slang-slinging gangster in the form of a late-20th-century C-list Hollywood hard-ass.
Halfway through the movie, Ulysses’s gang turns against him, forcing him into a homemade electric chair powered by rickety exercise bikes. He not only survives, but also emerges, he says, “feeling charged”—and the 1930s monster-movie spell segues seamlessly into a distinctly contemporary alpha-male antihero’s intimidation monologue. It’s oddly one of the most exciting parts of the film. The act of collage attains a kind of lucid lunacy, and the references in combination become something new: handmade, logic-defying, and magical.