Film Review: Keyhole

Black-and-white cinematography, free-association storytelling, an obsession with the past, and the presence of Isabella Rossellini…yup, it’s another Guy Maddin joint.

There’s something oddly comforting about the general oddity of the cinema of Canadian auteur Guy Maddin. Few contemporary filmmakers have such a firm grasp on their particular voice and style; the specific situations and settings may change, but Maddin’s distinct sensibility is always present. You may not necessarily understand what’s going on at all times, but it’s always clear that he does.

That’s the case with his latest film, Keyhole, which takes all of the familiar elements of a Guy Maddin film—among them highly stylized black-and-white images and themes of memory and fascination with a vanished past—and applies them to a genre typically associated with less high-minded fare: the haunted-house horror story.

Jason Patric stars as Ulysses Pick, a ’30s-era gangster who crosses the threshold of his home after many years away with two other visitors in tow. The first is a dead girl (Brooke Palsson) who has been reanimated under unexplained circumstances, while the other is his son Manners (David Wontner)…not that Ulysses seems entirely cognizant of the boy’s identity. That bit of amnesia is far from the strangest thing he’s currently experiencing, though. Entering the house, he finds it filled with all sorts of ghosts from his past, whom he has to navigate through to reach the only other flesh-and-blood inhabitants currently residing there: his grieving wife Hyacinth (frequent Maddin collaborator Isabella Rossellini) and her aged father (Louis Negin) who she has chained to her bed in the room she once shared with Ulysses.

If you’re wondering about the significance of the main character’s name, yes—it is a deliberate reference to The Odyssey, which Maddin has singled out as a major source of inspiration for the film. Like his namesake, this Ulysses is trying to find his way home, albeit through the rooms of his house rather than from across the Aegean Sea. The choice of Patric for this role is an interesting one, as he’s the kind of intensely dramatic actor who would seem to have trouble adapting to Maddin’s more fanciful filmmaking style. But the contrast actually works in the movie’s favor; there’s no trace of artifice in his performance (unlike, say, Rossellini’s, which is as heightened as her phantasmagorical surroundings), which lends the character’s quest real urgency.

As always, though, the real star is Maddin’s visual imagination; Keyhole may not be the most striking movie he’s made (his silent epic Brand Upon the Brain! still holds that title), but the moody black-and-white photography, as well as his use of superimposition and jarring close-ups, transforms this ordinary house into an otherworldly environment.

One thing that is missing from Keyhole is the sense of exuberance and surreal silliness that runs underneath some of Maddin’s more celebrated movies, most notably his breakthrough 2003 art-house hit, The Saddest Music in the World. That’s par for the course considering the material he’s working with here, but at the same time that levity does help offset the general strangeness that’s often unfolding in this films and acts as a way to keep the audience engaged in lieu of a conventional narrative. Keyhole’s tone is more earnestly serious throughout, to the point where the proceedings actually become tedious to keep up with at times, especially since this particular scenario is a little thin. If you’re a Maddin novice looking to understand what makes this guy special, this film is probably not the best place to start. Viewers more familiar with his work will at least be comforted by its familiar style, even as they find themselves wishing that it was just a bit sharper.