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De Palma Hopes to Raise His Stock in `Raising Cain'

The filmmaker's tale of a multiple-personality psychiatrist teeters on the brink of excess

BRIAN De Palma had a problem: how to resuscitate his career after "The Bonfire of the Vanities" almost burned it to a crisp.

And he found a solution. Taking a bold step backward, Mr. De Palma has abandoned the world of literary adaptations, Hollywood megastars, and bloated budgets that he flirted with in "Bonfire," a flop of such epic proportions that an entire bestseller was written to chronicle its rise and fall.

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His newest film, "Raising Cain," is vintage De Palma in every way - chockful of menace, paranoia, insanity, and filmmaking that teeters on the edge of brilliance and absurdity at the same time. It's the most invigorating movie he's ever concocted. Yet it's so loaded with his usual excesses and eccentricities that many spectators may wish "Bonfire" had incinerated his cinematic prospects after all.

It's traditional in movie reviews to outline the plot and tell who the main characters are. The second part is easy with "Raising Cain," since most of the main characters are lumped into a single person: a deranged psychiatrist named Carter, whose skull is crammed with different personalities, all jostling to express themselves.

Synopsizing the story is more difficult, because De Palma's screenplay serves up enough riddles, contradictions, and ambiguities to make Carter himself seem like a relatively straight-ahead guy. The action veers between reality and hallucination, wedging delirious flashbacks into dream sequences that don't say they're dream sequences until they're over. This is one suspense movie where half the suspense comes from wondering what in the world is going on.

If the screenplay is aggressively strange, the cinematic style is breathtakingly assured. De Palma has tremendous fun with sweeping camera movements, playful editing gambits, and compositions packed with unexpected angles and colors. Just as impressive is John Lithgow's performance in the title role(s) of Carter and his various alter egos. It's a tour de force of horror, hilarity, and sheer histrionics.

With so much virtuosity to boast of, it's a pity that "Raising Cain" also has a massive shortcoming embedded within it, especially in the later scenes: a fear and distrust of women that's sadly familiar from earlier De Palma pictures.

To his credit, De Palma appears to be aware of this tendency in his filmmaking, and to be steering (although not too vigorously) in a different direction. Two key characters in "Raising Cain" are smart, capable women - both physicians, as it happens, and vastly more successful than Carter at keeping their lives in good working order.

Yet the old, woman-baiting De Palma creeps into the picture, too. Violence is often directed against women, and sure enough, one of Carter's most evil personalities turns out to be thoroughly female. The movie's final shot - a truly effective zinger, in cinematic terms - consolidates all this by showing a male character totally engulfed in femininity seen as alien, aggressive, and scary.

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More subtly, the film makes a close association between women and childrearing, only to imply that women aren't strong enough to protect their progeny from lunatics like Carter, who steals children to help his father's crackpot "research" into personality development. (Needless to say, the mental-health professions don't come off very flatteringly in the film, either.)

"Raising Cain" isn't as original as its convoluted screenplay would like us to believe. There are enough rip-offs from Alfred Hitchcock to justify "Psycho 3" as an alternate title, and it appears that the enormous success of "The Silence of the Lambs," with its psychotic psychiatrist and high-violence quotient, also spurred De Palma to some clever borrowing. Like these sources of inspiration, "Raising Cain" is too complex and multifaceted to be written off as mere misogyny. Yet it indicates that De Palma , after all these years, still doesn't quite get it about the worth and dignity of women on the screen.

As for the picture's box-office expectations, I don't think they're very high. The story is too labyrinthine for casual summertime spectators, who prefer easy entertainment to puzzles that need constant decoding; and the picture's many touches of sly satire (often aimed at its own style and characterizations) may easily be misread as bad or hokey filmmaking. "Raising Cain" will delight cinephiles with keen eyes and strong stomachs, but general audiences may find it more bothersome than brilliant. Rated R for sexuality, violence, and language.

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