Sympathy for Norman Bates: Peacock (Michael Lander, 2010)

peacock

When Inception hit in mid-2010, Cillian Murphy and Ellen Paige had already shared the screen a few months before in Peacock, a film with a far more modest budget. Peacock’s failings, however, don’t include lack of ambition. Its aim is no less than to revive one of cinema’s most famous characters: Norman Bates.

Murphy is John, an incredibly withdrawn man living in his dead mother’s house, doing his best to avoid speaking to anyone else in the small town of Peacock. Murphy is also Emma, the alternate personality who looks after John and follows a strict timetable in which they abdicate control of his body to each other. After a train derails while Emma is in the backyard, the townspeople meet her for the first time and assume she’s John’s wife. Emma decides she doesn’t want to stay confined any longer, and ventures out into the world. Of course, this has significant implications for John, including the likelihood that his terrible history will repeat itself.

Peacock expects the viewer to spend the film guessing at what exactly is going on with John and Emma. Some of it is obvious if you’ve twigged onto the Norman Bates similarities, but other matters are more ambiguous. Are John and Emma aware of each other’s existence? Which of them is stronger, and who needs who more? What was John’s mother’s role in his life? Most effectively, the story plays with the viewer’s expectations of which character should be more sympathetic.

This film is peopled with an unusual combination of familiar faces. Keith Carradine, in full charmer mode, is a local politician. Bill Pullman, sporting terrible hair, is John’s manipulative boss. Susan Sarandon is the head of a local women’s shelter, reaching out to Emma, who she sees as a downtrodden wife. Ellen Paige is a waitress with an unlikely connection to John, and she falls short in comparison to the other actors. Her accent is inconsistent, her stuttering unconvincing, and her whole demeanour inauthentic. Perhaps she was cast for her fairly androgynous features, an interesting face to put opposite Murphy, or perhaps for the one or two roles that she’s been coasting on for years.

Peacock has an oddball premise, but it’s the moments of dark weirdness that jar its believability. Through ellipses, silences, flashbacks, and repetition, it explores John and Emma’s lives. Its mysteries are intriguing, but when presented in this manner, certain elements of the story are difficult to accept. I would have preferred for the film to be either more straight-forward in its telling or less lurid in some of its plot points. As it is, the tone is uncomfortable and the whole film feels unbalanced.

None of these problems matter, however, with this lead actor. Murphy strongly delineates John and Emma, he all hunched shoulders and hostile fear, she quiet steeliness behind a demure demeanour. Excellent makeup is a help, but the inevitable scene where Murphy is playing one of these characters pretending to be the other is so masterfully done that it’s instantly clear what he’s doing. The film rests entirely on Murphy’s performance, and he makes its weak points tolerable. His commitment to pursuing challenging, unconventional roles no matter how far his star rises could not be more obvious in the contrast between Inception and Peacock.

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