Tuesday, March 1, 2011
But he was so angry. His self-hatred came out as anger against everybody and everything. He said to me, “If I didn’t drink I’d be afraid I’d kill someone.” He looks at you that way and you just say, “Keep drinking.”
— David Cronenberg on Patrick McGoohan, from Cronenberg on Cronenberg
Above all else, Scanners is about the horror of the banal. David Cronenberg’s film is littered with dead spaces and nondescript cityscapes, grey concrete blocks housing hilariously sinister corporations with names like ConSec and Biochemical Amalgamate. The world is so generic and antiseptic it turns threatening. This may have been shot in Toronto, but it looks like a roadmap of hell. Surely human beings aren’t expected to live here.
After all, is there anything quite so unsettling, so alien and unnatural, as a clean food court? That should be our first indication that this is a terrifying and strange world, vaguely like our own and yet completely different. The discomfort of the opening mall scene is heightened by the nearly total silence—the only voices are jumbled mutters and white noise. Such is the lonely perspective of Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack), the derelict psychic who serves as our tour guide through the dull monstrosities of modern architecture.
Vale is a fascinating protagonist, if only for the near total absence of anything remotely fascinating in his character. The man is the human equivalent of the food court or those dull grey buildings that house ConSec—he’s a blast of stagnant, recycled air, something natural turned cold and mechanical. But I think that he’s perfectly in step with the rest of the film. For all his flaws as a performer, Lack certainly goes with the furniture.
Yes, his delivery is stilted, and it’s true his expressions are often inappropriate or ridiculous. Sometimes he flashes this creepy half-smile, as if he forgot what’s happening around him and is trying to hide his embarrassment. But it’s worth nothing that Vale is actually supposed to be a traumatized loner, unsure of his past and unable to bear human company. The line between brain damage and bad performance blurs uncomfortably.
So it works—sort of. Lack is bolstered on both sides by two fiery rage-machines: Michael Ironside (in the role of villainous psychic Darryl Revok) and Patrick McGoohan (as Vale’s saviour and psychic expert Dr. Ruth). In particular, the scenes between McGoohan and Lack make for some strange but compelling viewing. On the one side you have McGoohan, eyes ablaze, voice rumbling with authority. And then you have Lack, blankly staring ahead, reciting each line like he was told to read a grocery list with a bit of emphasis. How can any self-respecting actor react to that? These scenes are like watching a hammer beat a sponge.
McGoohan may be the superior performer, but it’s really Lack who has the upper hand in their exchanges. Strength is only an asset when there’s something to break. Otherwise, it’s pure wasted energy. The aptly named Lack is less a person than a black hole, and both McGoohan and Ironside pour their intensity into that emptiness, burning out while Lack remains unaffected. The fact that Vale essentially triumphs over both Ruth and Revok makes one wonder if Cronenberg hadn’t planned for this effect all along.
“It’s always been Vale inside me, sucking out my joy, rotting my successes,” Ruth moans near the end, displaying some of that all-consuming despair Cronenberg saw in McGoohan. As Ruth confronts the horror he has created, he becomes a numb and broken man—it’s as if he had discovered his whole life was one elaborate suicide all along. Frail and tormented, he claws at his face in a gesture eerily echoed by Vale in the film’s climactic battle. But Vale simply peels away his own flesh, surviving the death of his self because he was barely a person in the first place. Ruth’s face, by comparison, remains paralyzed by self-hatred—until it shatters, and he is destroyed.