The first couple of times I watched SAFE, I mainly viewed it through the prism of suburban malaise. But clearly, it’s a special film that warrants multiple interpretations due to its ambiguous nature. After a half dozen viewings, it’s safe to say that it’s reductive to proclaim that SAFE is just about environmental illness. That would be like saying that MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE is just about cults. In some way, the character of Carol in SAFE is about to become Martha Marcy May Marlene at the end of this movie. Both films seem to scream out with existential terror that the lack of identity is not only anxiety-inducing but potentially inevitable due to the world we live in. We become shaped and shifted by different forces and stimuli, due to vulnerability, openness, mental instability… any number of factors. Our true self is bound to get lost, evolve or devolve.
SAFE seems to also be a precursor of one of my new favorite TV shows, THE LEFTOVERS, in which the decline of personal “faith” and “family” and “connectedness” is a result of trauma, something I relate to. After experiencing near-death at a young age, the death of my closest family member years later, and a number of illnesses, I should not beat myself up for the awkwardness I feel in the real world because sometimes I feel like a floating ghost. Other times I feel more alive than words can describe, and sometimes it's due to the experience of watching a movie like this one. There are scenes in SAFE that hit me harder than just about any movie ever made, particularly one where Carol starts crying for no reason when she returns back to her cabin, which mirrors the scene that made PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE my favorite PTA movie oddly enough. Trauma and uncertainty makes you feel like an apparition, and SAFE captures a number of feelings: depression, anxiety, isolation, fear, complacence. It even traps Carol inside patriarchy both with the cold post-credits sex scene and the cold lack of compassion from her husband who is tired of hearing about her “headaches.”
I can understand being turned off by the experience of SAFE. At times, it’s cold, detached, distant. One could view the first half as Kubrickian, for certain. However, look closer for Haynes’ compassion and warmth such as the new friend that visits Carol after she has her crying spell during her first night at Wrenwood. Haynes emphasizes Carol's alienation by using long shots when filming Carol inside the house; the enormous rooms make her seem even smaller, and Haynes typically includes the ceilings of the rooms within the frame in order to give the viewer the sense that Carol is trapped. Carol gradually becomes nothing more than a ghostly presence in the house, which is illustrated by several haunting scenes in which Carol sleepwalks around the house at night. Again, the apparition syndrome. The film certainly is critical of institutions that try to pigeonhole you or say “This is what’s wrong with you,” so Wrenwood could certainly be any number of things: psychiatry, politics, religion. And that’s the power of Haynes’ work here. He inserts little hints about yellow wallpaper (read that short story if you haven’t), AIDS, psychosomatic disorder, what her friend’s brother might have been. But it’s never explicit, unlike something like AMERICAN BEAUTY which outright tells you something like “This is not a marriage! We’re not happy! This is just a couch!” Attempts to retreat into any institution might be soul-crushing and toxic to one’s identity. Some people might feel that way about marriage, some might feel that way about the suburbs, some people might feel that way about religion. I think the scariest part of this film is the idea that identity is fluid to a fault. Maybe we need to accept this rather than fight it by trying to fit in somewhere. Yet we are drawn towards community, unity, and feeling connected through a shared experience. This is why support groups exist. Haynes brilliantly showcases the idea of AA as being “questionable” through dialogue early on in a locker room, then mirrored later through an actual support group that Carol attends.
In the end, there are no easy answers. We might be plagued forever by our trauma. Carol’s downfall might be easily succumbing to something in hopes of it making the most sense in her life. But isn’t this what we all do whether with a hobby or by falling in love? I think there’s a lot to gain from the experience of watching this movie more and more, and I think the support group scene says a lot about our varying reactions to trauma or “sickness.” And there will ALWAYS be someone who thinks they have the right to lead a group and say what they think is the cause of one’s personal pain. I feel Carol’s pain but I’m also angered at her blind ignorance. For some reason, that conflict inside of me is fascinating to revisit and I get more out of watching SAFE for the sixth time than I did out of any philosophy class I ever took. So try to let the mysterious elements of Haynes’ psyche and incredible talent as a storyteller here infuse you. It’s easy to see that Julianne Moore gives one of the best performances ever, but notice the nuances throughout. I would say that her speech towards the end, might be one of my favorite moments in acting history. Movies like this don’t get made very often so please see them, tell others to see them, talk about them. I’m not sure which critic said SAFE was the best film of the 90s, but they have may have been right. Emotional connection is what I live for, both in movies and in general. SAFE is kind of the epitome of that connective experience for me that continues to grow with me as I continue to grow old.