Clean, Shaven (United States, 1994)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Consider how mainstream movies depict violence. Bodies are chopped up, blown apart, and torn to pieces. Blood and gore flow as freely as water. Films like Interview with the Vampire are awash in a crimson tide, and no one thinks twice about it. Then along comes a film like Clean, Shaven, where nothing is gratuitous, and suddenly viewers are shocked. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer provoked a similar response, for the same reasons.

There's no denying that the film is disturbing, at times profoundly so. One scene in particular resulted in more than half the audience wincing, turning away, or leaving. Often, it's the simplest, most realistic forms of violence, when portrayed in such a vivid manner, that cause the stomach to churn. During Clean, Shaven's screening at the 1994 Sundance Film Festival, a member of the audience fainted. As a result of this single, thirty second sequence, which film maker Lodge Kerrigan refused to edit out, this movie took nearly eighteen months to acquire a distributor.

Peter Winter (Peter Greene) is a schizophrenic, and Clean, Shaven introduces us to his world, where paranoid delusions intermingle with reality. Through the use of viewpoint photography and stark, unusual images, we are brought into Peter's mind. It's not a pleasant place to be. Upon occasion, movies like to present a protagonist who straddles the line of sanity, but Clean, Shaven shows no such ambiguity. Peter is clinically insane. (One psychiatrist at the screening I attended described this as "the best portrayal of untreated schizophrenia ever [presented] on film.")

The story, which develops largely without dialogue, follows Peter's quest to locate his young daughter Nicole (Jennifer MacDonald). Having been institutionalized for the last several years, Peter has had no contact with Nicole, who had been living with her grandmother. Now, she has been adopted, and he is determined to find her. His intentions are profoundly unclear, and he is already under suspicion of having brutally murdered another young girl. A detective (Robert Albert) is on his trail, closing in while gathering evidence.

In many ways, Clean, Shaven is an incredible cinematic experience, but it will neither entertain nor appeal to a "typical" movie-goer. Writer/director Kerrigan is aware of this, but was unwilling to change a frame of the final cut. His vision, which took more than two years to commit to film, remains intact. And, frankly, without the controversial scene, the character study would be incomplete.

As was true of Michael Rooker in the title role of Henry, so Peter Greene is hauntingly convincing as Clean, Shaven's off-balance lead. Whether scrubbing his skin with steel wool, cutting into his scalp with a scissor, curled into a ball fighting against a flashback, or hiding from his own reflection, Greene has a perfect sense of Peter. The other actors are all competent, but their work pales in comparison to this singular performance.

It's always difficult to rate a film that, while powerful and well made, is an exercise in endurance. There are those -- even among the art-film crowd -- who will find this picture unbearable. Theaters will warn of its graphic content. Viewers will endlessly debate all the unanswered questions posed within. But no one who sits through this film is likely to forget it. Clean, Shaven is one of those rare movies that leaves an indelible imprint on anyone still watching as the closing credits roll.

Clean, Shaven (United States, 1994)

Director: Lodge Kerrigan
Cast: Peter Greene, Robert Albert, Megan Owen, Jennifer MacDonald, Molly Castelloe
Screenplay: Lodge Kerrigan
Cinematography: Teodoro Maniaci
Music: Hahn Rowe
U.S. Distributor: Strand Releasing
Run Time: 1:20
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "NR" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1