Reviewed by Debi Moore
Starring Cillian Murphy, Ellen Page, Susan Sarandon, Josh Lucas, Keith Carradine
Directed by Michael Lander
Distributed by Lionsgate Home Entertainment
While the theme of multiple personalities can often come off as melodramatic or campy thanks to its overuse in soap operas and its current over-the-top portrayal in Diablo Cody’s “United States of Tara” on Showtime, it is still one of the best mediums to utilize when undertaking a psychological thriller. Or, in the words of Peacock director and co-writer Michael Lander, an “internalized psychological horror film”. Plus, it offers the actor playing a character with such an affliction the opportunity to shine. Think of Joanne Woodward in The Three Faces of Eve and Sally Field in Sybil. Oscar- and Emmy-winning performances, respectively. Toni Collette, the aforementioned Tara, won last year’s Emmy as well. Do similar rewards await Cillian Murphy for his turn in the split personality sweepstakes? If there’s any justice in this world, absolutely.
But before delving into the pleasures to be derived from Peacock‘s smartly assembled thespians, let’s take a quick look at its storyline. Most of the time John Skillpa (Murphy) is a meek, socially inept bank employee who keeps to himself and appears to have his life totally in order. Except for during the early morning hours, when he releases “Emma”, his alter ego, who basically runs his life by taking care of the household and leaving him notes with instructions of what to do while she’s “asleep”. It works out fine for John … until one fateful morning when a train derails into his backyard while Emma is bringing the laundry in from the clothesline. Her presence is a surprise to John’s neighbors and his employer, who all assume she’s his wife. As Emma interacts with those around her, she begins to extend the hours of her possession of John’s mind and body, and from there things begin spiraling out of control as a battle begins for dominance between the two sides of John’s psyche. Other factors play into the conflict as both the mayor’s wife (Sarandon) and a call girl with a past connection to John (Page) befriend Emma and unknowingly help increase her power over him.
Unlike a lot of cinematic peeks into the world of dissociative identity disorder, the script by Lander and Ryan O Roy doesn’t spend a lot of time examining the “why” of John Skillpa’s life but rather focuses on the ramifications of the “how”. John was only able to maintain his routine because of a tight regimen of discipline and restraint. Once the lid is blown off, however, there’s no putting Emma back in the box. We’re told just enough about his mother to know everything we need to about how he got in this situation, but that’s not why we’re here in podunk Peacock, Nebraska. No, we’re here to see Murphy blow the doors off as he/she combo John and Emma. Back and forth the viewer goes — alternately sympathetic to and suspicious of each — and for vastly different reasons. Is Emma evil like Mama Skillpa, or is she actually the “true” John? Murphy inhabits the widely different characters completely, and it’s a testament to his (and Lander’s) craft that not once does he make Emma exaggerated or far-fetched.
Plus, he’s surrounded by a supporting cast that 100% brings it’s “A” game. Bill Pullman as his unfeeling boss, Carradine and Sarandon as the small-town politician and his wife who see John as their ticket to some good old-fashioned self-promotion (although Sarandon’s Mrs. Crill does have slightly more altruistic intentions than her husband), and Page as the mystery woman who may or may not hold the key to the John/Emma standoff are all believable and textbook examples of acting ease and prowess. Ditto Josh Lucas as Officer Tom McGonigle, sort of John’s friend but not nearly close enough to suspect what complexities lurk behind his simple exterior. He’s a character I really would have liked to have seen more of; but, much like last year’s Moon, wherein Sam Rockwell had a tour de force as two sides of astronaut Sam Bell, Peacock belongs to one man alone: Cillian Murphy as John and Emma Skillpa with a big assist from Michael Lander.
With only a single other IMDB credit to his name (a short from 2000 entitled “Solid Waste”), Lander has materialized on the scene out of nowhere to give us a welcome alternative to the influx of remakes, sequels, prequels, and 3D extravaganzas that Hollywood seems to be incapable to saying no to — a real thinking, feeling person’s look at the thin line between mental health and mental illness but with enough of an edge to it that feelings of uncertainty and suspense permeate every frame. I can’t wait to see what he might have up his sleeve next.
Overall my sole complaint about Peacock is the ending. After watching the film the first time through, I was only mildly satisfied at the outcome. It felt a little too on-the-nose and almost Lifetime-esque. There are times when wrapping things up is called for, but in this instance the bow added on top was way too big. I much prefer the alternate ending included on the DVD; it’s tighter and more ambiguous, allowing viewers the option of filling in a few blanks for themselves. Unfortunately, there’s no commentary included in which we might have heard from Lander as to why the other conclusion was chosen. Nonetheless, there are some additional choice extras like a just over 20-minute long behind-the-scenes featurette entitled “Welcome to Peacock”, four deleted scenes totaling four minutes, and three minutes of rehearsal footage of Murphy. Throw in the script on DVD-ROM and a few Lionsgate trailers, and we’re done. It’s an average amount of special features for an above average film that deserves better.
Peacock may not have enough genre elements to appeal to the stereotypical horror fan who prefers gorier, more action-based fare, but its reach will extend to those who appreciate originality, attention to detail, and the headsier side of insanity — all held together by an award-worthy leading man … or is that woman?
4 out of 5
2 1/2 out of 5