For those who complain that Guy Maddin keeps making the same movies over and over… That isn’t entirely true. Maddin’s latest, Keyhole, is significantly different from anything he’s done before. In the past, Maddin’s work has felt like avant-garde re-edits of footage he found in the archive of some Eastern European country that didn’t survive the fall of communism. Keyhole feels more like some Poverty Row production that lapsed into the public domain decades ago, and ever since has been running at 2 a.m. every morning on a small state college’s dedicated cable-access channel. It’s still a pastiche of forgotten cinema, in other words, but the references are a little more modern and mainstream, at least by Maddin standards. Keyhole is a gangster picture crossed with a haunted-house picture crossed with a sword-and-sandal adventure, with Jason Patric playing a hoodlum named Ulysses whose mob is cornered in a crumbling house occupied by the ghosts of Patric’s past. The hero confronts his family issues as he goes searching for his wife (Isabella Rossellini) in the house’s secret rooms and nooks, while Maddin plays around with tough-guy patter between woozy black-and-white shots of half-naked people stumbling through a nightmare.
Few directors have Maddin’s visual imagination, which manifests in Keyhole via gun-molls with obscene graffiti scrawled on their underpants, a dusty wooden penis protruding inexplicably from a wall, an nude old coot chained to his bed, a woman with gold dust nestled in her pubic hair, a bicycle-powered electric chair, and more darkly perverse visions per minute than even most horror filmmakers could muster. Maddin and his regular co-writer, George Toles, are again dealing with memory and unconsciousness, creating a sensation not unlike nodding off during the late show and waking to find the furniture around your easy chair re-arranged. But while it’s nice to see Maddin broadening his range of influences (and moving beyond autobiography for the first time in a while), the genres he’s riffing on call for a little more narrative discipline than Maddin is inclined to give. It’s odd to see Patric apply his veteran polish to a story that’s often nonsensical by design, and one in which the rest of the cast is frequently either stiff or exaggerated. Keyhole’s flashes of actual B-movie coherence are enough to make longtime Maddin-watchers wonder if he could’ve played this material straighter, with more of a plot and fewer reveries. As it stands, Keyhole contains stretches as potent and distinctive as any in Maddin’s filmography, but they stand apart from each other, and fail to fully connect.