Movie Reviews

Movie Review: Safe (1995) – Is There Any Place Safe From a Disturbed Soul?

Written by Todd Haynes
Directed by Todd Haynes

No matter how much we seem to have as a society here in America, we never seem to be truly happy. Indeed, there are people who it seems will never be happy under any circumstances. I try to go by the mantra that if the worst thing that happens is that my name is spelled wrong, life is pretty damn good. However, there are plenty out there who will castigate people for the slightest infraction into their “perfect” world and make a huge issue out of something that truly isn’t.

Julianne Moore stars in Safe as Carol White. Carol is a well-to-do suburban stay-at-home mother and wife who stresses over life’s little anxieties. The wrong couch is delivered and it’s a major disaster to her. She spends most of her day at the gym or reading and being waited on by her staff.

Something seems to be happening to Carol. At first, it seems physical, but as time wears on it’s somewhat ambivalent. She is going through the motions in life. Sex with her husband is unfulfilling; her life is unfulfilling. Is it something physical? Or is it the mental wearing down of life with little meaning or purpose?

Through the media, Carol diagnoses herself as having an environmental illness and is off to a new-age healing center in New Mexico, far from the dirt, smog, pollution, and other perceived contaminants in her life. However, her life doesn’t seem to get better the more removed she becomes from her world.

Writer and Director Todd Haynes seems to have taken a position here that these illnesses seen on the talk shows are nothing more that the psychosomatic manifestations of our dissatisfaction with our lives. While that may be true, I am troubled by the fact that could lead to people dismissing a physical illness by telling people they are crazy and to “get over it”.

That aside, Safe is a great film. Indeed, Carol is not “safe” in her world which seems to be attacking her. She has everything we seem to strive for in this country and should be happy, yet she continues to pick at anything that isn’t perfect in her life the way kids often pick at a scab until it is much worse than what it originally was. At the same time, the existence she has achieved is meaningless to her. She has a husband and child to care for, yet gets no fulfillment from either.

Even as she is commending herself during a group session near the end for how far she’s come, Carol’s words seem hollow. She hasn’t come all that far and is, is anything, still deteriorating. This is because what is inside her that is killing her hasn’t been dealt with. Instead, it has been swept under the rug as she moves into a sterile igloo and exists on oxygen, afraid to even breathe the air around her.

Julianne Moore is brilliant as Carol. She’s vapid and self-centered, but not overly so. I could look at her and roll my eyes, thinking “Oh God” at some of her reactions. She doesn’t seem to be a sympathetic character, yet the physical manifestations of her illness, psychosomatic or real, are enough to horrify the viewer. For if it is real, it means it could strike any of us at any time. Moore’s thin-rail frame exudes a delicateness that many other actresses could not display, while at the same time it adds to the feeling that she is deteriorating in her corner of the world, either because of it or in spite of it.

Xander Berkeley is her husband Greg. He seems lost throughout the film; sort of a deer-in-the-headlights look most of the time without a clue as to what is going on or what to do. He wants to be supportive of his wife, yet she is dismissive of him. Berkeley does a great job in this area, giving the character sympathy as he just doesn’t know how to cope with the situation but is still putting one foot in front of the other and going forward.

Haynes has masterfully directed Safe, though. The imagery is splendid, with the coloring and lighting setting the perfect moods in the world, from Carol and Greg’s home to the sterile environment she retreats to. One scene that struck me was when she is eating with a friend out on the deck of a restaurant with traffic going by while they talk of the healthy new diets they are on. The contrast as to what is taking place in the world is striking (sort of like a ban on smoking in NYC restaurants while people sit outside where traffic idles next to them) but it’s not conveyed with a heavy hand. The movie did seem to plod a bit to me, but the story is told in such a way that you will want to stick it through to the end, although even that left questions unanswered.

Safe is going to make the viewer think. I don’t necessarily think that all environmental illnesses are the product of one’s mind, but the scenario Haynes has set up is quite believable in today’s world. It should also raise concerns for many parents who are raising a generation that thinks it’s a terrible hardship not to have a cell phone by the time they are twelve. Are we raising a generation of Carol Whites?


” Commentary with Todd Haynes, Julianne Moore, and Christine Vachon
” Filmographies
” Bonus Trailers

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