Released in 1993 by independent Canadian film-maker Lodge Kerrigan, Clean, Shaven is a harrowing look at the bleak, confusing, and often painful world of a schizophrenic man named Peter (played by Peter Greene, perhaps best known as “Zed” from Pulp Fiction), mostly from his own perspective.
Clean, Shaven is an unconventional film in many ways. The plot itself is deliberately minimal. Peter is searching for his daughter Nicole. That’s it. We don’t know when or how they became separated, or where Peter has been (institutionalized? in prison?) for the past several years. He just appears at the start of the film and we find out he’s looking for his daughter now. Oddly enough, that’s all the plot the film really needs. A mainstream Hollywood script would just get in the way. The alpha and the omega of the film is in Greene’s portrayal of Peter.
Often near the point of physical collapse, the agitation is palpable as Peter’s exhaustion is over matched by whatever torment is going on behind those darting eyes. We see his fear when he becomes obsessed with covering all the mirrors in his car with newspaper. We don’t understand why Peter feels the need to do that, but we implicitly understand it’s somehow important to him.
The few, brief periods of calm Peter experiences are no less fascinating. There is a scene where Peter has purchased several cups of coffee from a gas station. The method and order by which he adds sugar or creamer to each paper cup of coffee becomes his world. The deafening roar of machinery operating the next field over does not intrude upon the peculiar ritual. It goes unnoticed until Peter has satisfied the demands of this compulsion.
At times, the audience can’t be completely sure if what they are seeing and hearing on screen is really happening or is just a delusion from Peter’s mind. Director Kerrigan willfully keeps a number of scenes open to interpretation, giving the audience a taste of the constant struggle Peter and people with mental illnesses like his can face.
There is also a “B” story arc in the film that ultimately connects with Peter and his search for his daughter. A serial killer who preys exclusively on children has been operating in the area recently. The implication, of course, is that Peter might be the serial killer. In all honesty, the serial killer element is one of the less interesting things about Clean, Shaven. It serves a purpose in further adding to the mystery of Peter’s background, and perhaps also in raising questions about the public’s perception about mental illness and the mentally ill. Beyond that, it’s a bit of throwaway.
The supporting cast is generally good in their roles, if not spectacular. Checking the IMDB, most of the listed cast had not worked in a previous film, or in any subsequent productions. One wonders if at least some of them were not professional actors by trade.
The best of the supporting cast are Megan Owen as Peter’s mother, and Jennifer MacDonald as Peter’s daughter, Nicole. Less impressive are the trope-ish characters of the nosy librarian/town bigot and the cop with an inferiority complex, who is hunting for the child killer who may or may not be Peter. They are written more as plot devices than actual characters.
One has probably already gathered that Clean, Shaven is not an easy film to watch. One would be correct, but only partly so. None of the film is easy or comfortable to watch, but there are parts of the film that are damned hard to get through. Peter’s mental anguish and hallucinations are emotionally draining, and like so many real-life schizophrenics, he engages in self-harm. One scene is particularly brutal, where Peter believes he was found a secret transmitter in his fingernail. It’s an agonizing sequence that makes the audience beg him to stop hurting himself, and ache in our guts over the realization of the hell that Peter lives in every single day.
Equally disturbing is the handiwork left by the serial killer. While the writing for the B-story is not great, the visuals are chillingly well done. The killer has an obsessive ritual with cleaning and dressing his young victims, leaving them arranged in an almost peaceful pose. There’s something about the “care” taken for his victims that makes the crime seem all the more heinous.
Perhaps the most challenging thing about the film, however, is that it refuses to answer all of our questions with a neat, packaged ending. Which, in this case, is a good thing. Clean, Shaven is about the ride, not the destination. Wrapping everything up at the end would have been a betrayal to the film and the audience. Instead, we leave the film quietly disturbed, and left to brood over what we have seen for the past 90 minutes. We were we right about Peter? Were we right about a particular scene? Did our own preconceived notions color our judgment? It’s a journey that can be as difficult — and as rewarding — as Clean, Shaven itself.
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