If there is one thing I have learned today, it would be that critical thinking doesn’t mix well with migraines.
Sunny but cloudy. Rain later.
John Skillpa is a bank clerk in the small town of Peacock, Nebraska in the 1950s. He live alone in his old family home and is cripplingly shy, not speaking to anyone unless out of necessity. John has a secret that he keeps from the rest of the community: he has Dissociative Identity Disorder. His alter-ego is a woman named Emma. John and Emma live a regular routine together until a passing train derails and crashes into their backyard while Emma is in the garden. With her existence no longer a secret, the neighbours assume that Emma is John’s wife. In a panic, they both play along. A terrified John tries to get back to the status quo but Emma is welcomed into the community and finds herself thriving. There are only so many ways this can end, none of them good.
If you ask a hundred film buffs who one of the best young actors working today is, quite a few of them will probably mention Cillian Murphy. This small-scale psychological thriller from 2010 is a prime example of why. He plays both John and Emma as two entirely separate characters. While they are both aware of each other, they have no memory of what the other does while in control. Even before the assumpions of the neighbours, they basically live like man and wife with Emma doing the housework and leaving John notes with his packed lunch.
Any possibility of Clark Kent Syndrome (nobody recognises Superman with glasses on?) is undone by Murphy’s uncanny performance(s) and good work by the hair, makeup and costume teams*. Anyone who saw Neil Jordan’s Breakfast on Pluto would know that the Irishman makes a rather disconcertingly good-looking woman, but Emma is a far cry from that film’s transgendered teen Kitten. Where John’s shyness is manifested in his angular movements and ill-fitting clothes – he seems to be constantly trying to disappear into his too-big suit – Emma is more composed and dignified yet still afraid of talking to people. It is her burgeoning relationships with the mayor’s wife Fanny (played by Susan Sarandon) and Ellen Page’s young single mother Maggie that bring her out of her self-imposed shell and start to threaten John’s position as the dominant personality.
One hallmark of debut writer/director Michael Lander’s script (co-written with Ryan O. Roy) is the sensitivity and restraint with which the subject of multiple personalities is handled. They were great scenes, but the Gollum/Smeagol arguments from Lord of the Rings had the unfortunate after-effect of inspiring lots of writers to incorporate similar moments whenever they had a DID character, which also usually followed the Jekyll and Hyde, one good/one murderous pattern. Of course, Peacock is billed as a psychological thriller, and the second part of that equation must come around eventually but when it does, it is somewhat justified by what has gone before within the story; it’s a logical conclusion, not some gimmicky twist just dropped in to the last reel. The fact that it doesn’t come off quite as well as the build-up isn’t enough to ruin the film, but does stop it short of great.
Another advantage of a well-written, original story is that it draws quality actors like ants to a picnic. As well as the always reliably excellent Sarandon and Page, Peacock stars Keith Carradine as the Mayor and owner of the bank where John works, Josh Lucas as Officer McGonigle of the local police (and as near as John gets to having a friend) and Bill Pullman as the bank’s manager Mr French. This last is another one of Pullman’s seemingly normal yet mildly unsettling characters. You just know this guy has some secrets of his own that he wouldn’t want getting out.
Peacock will also be notable to some as the final film edited by Sally Menke before her death in a hiking accident. Menke, who edited everything Tarantino shot from Reservoir Dogs to Inglourious Basterds, was the Thelma Schoonmaker to his Martin Scorsese – not only a vital collaborator but a skilled artist in her own right. Getting her to work on his first film was undoubtedly quite a coup for Lander.
*Also, it was a small town in the fifties. “Secret wife” was probably a more reasonable assumption than “guy in a dress”, even if they did look awfully similar…