Safe is one of the most horrifying films I’ve ever seen. There’s no boogie man involved, nothing the audience ever sees that is in and of itself monstrous or bizarre. The great threat is ever looming but invisible. That doesn’t make it any less disturbing, frightening and unsettling. If anything, that makes the film more disturbing.
This threat is the chemicals throughout the modern world. Simple ‘80s housewife Carol White (Julianne Moore) begins having inexplicable physical afflictions that she comes to believe are a result of various modern chemicals she’s constantly exposed to through modern life. But how does one avoid something unseen and when does one know when to stay and when to flee?
Whether or not the actual threat exists is something writer/director Todd Haynes leaves ambiguous. There’s a suggestion that the entire thing is in her head, that it’s some sort of irrational psychological neurosis, an overreaction. But the film also suggests that certain things might be triggering these attacks, whether they are physical or psychological.
The material is based on historical medical cases of people who later became diagnosed with environmental sickness as their immune system was unable to withstand exposure to the high level of chemicals that compose a lot of modern life. This does add more to the notion that Carol’s suffering is a real condition.
Haynes is actually able to garner more sympathy for Carol by adopting a visual style that may seem cold and detached. Most of the film exists in medium and wide shots, often with Carol as a small part of the frame, visually dominated by the environment around her. Traditionally, close-ups help audience members feel more familiar with characters, but this style actually puts the audience into that place of entrapment and isolation with Carol.
The film refuses to look away from the absolute helplessness of this character and the pain she endures. She doesn’t know what is happening to her and Haynes often lingers upon her attacks for an unnerving amount of time, leaving the camera inert, capturing the audience in the same feeling of helplessness and immobility that imprisons Carol.
The sound design also adds to the uneasiness and horror of the piece. It’s a soft smattering of sounds with slow, unnerving music that helps build the film as this steadily escalating series of events become more and more disturbing and unnerving. It also heightens the environmental noises over the traditional sound effects in order to make that looming threat ever present in the audience’s subconscious.
Safe is a relentless movie that gives the audience very little respite. It’s exhausting, and yet that’s a conscious decision to help the audience begin to understand what Carol is going through, working from a place of emotions and feelings. It’s hard to watch a human being suffer like this, with little comfort, less answers and no end in sight, making it a film with little sentiment but a lot of empathy.
© 2011 James Blake Ewing