Years before Julianne Moore worked alongside famous directors such as the Coen Brothers, Paul Thomas Anderson, and Steven Spielberg, she had already graced us with one of her finest performances in Todd Haynes sophomore feature film Safe (1995). Safe follows Carol White (Moore), a dissociated homemaker that feels herself becoming sick for no apparent reason. Over the course of the film she begins to contract serious physical symptoms that test her relationships and sanity.
Director Todd Haynes (Far From Heaven, Carol) is on record stating that his clinical psychological drama Safe was “not an easy sell”. Even with a budget of one million dollars it took the star power of an emerging Julianne Moore to get the film green-lit. In 1993 Moore had a role in Robert Altman’s Short Cuts which, to this day, is most likely one of the highest honors you could bestow upon an emerging actor. Even with all of these factors at play, audiences couldn’t quite grasp Haynes’ vision upon initial release. Thankfully it’s popularity has grown over the years, and it’s large following has prompted the legendary Criterion Collection to re-release the film on Blu-ray/DVD for audiences who have never had the chance to see it before.
One of Safe’s most admirable qualities is its ability to change into something new at any moment without warning. We begin the film with Carol’s daily life in the suburbs where she experiences heavy dissociation with the world around her. Nothing seems to be correct and the air actually begins to feel toxic to her. This leads to one of the most shocking sequences in the film, which takes place at a dry cleaners shop and Carol has a seizure due to a fumigation crew. Eventually she commits herself to what is essentially a “well being” center called Camp Wrenwood. Here at the camp we are introduced to Lester, who is perhaps the most interesting character in the whole picture. Lester is so crippled by his own sickness that he refuses to eat normal food and wears special clothes that cover his entire body. He never speaks a word but the image of him roaming the seemingly endless desert is sure to be the one that lingers in your memory the most after viewing.
Alex Nepomniaschy is the man behind the camera on this one. He may not be a household name but I bet you’d want him to shoot your movie after seeing his work on this. The 35mm photography is just spectacular. I particularly like that Nepomniaschy is able to examine both the clinical high-class suburbs and the cult-like ghost town in equal measure; it’s a nice visual change in the second half. The wide shots in this film are something to behold.
Safe is a truly one of a kind movie that holds many questions regarding mental illness and environmental issues. Over the last twenty five years I would argue it has become more relevant now than when it was first released. This is an iconic piece of ‘90s cinema that continues to impress even the most seasoned film fans. If you would like to watch Todd Haynes’ SAFE it is currently streaming on the Criterion Channel and is available for purchase on Blu-ray/DVD.