These days, with the total media saturation of studio marketing campaigns and the Internet-born near-impossibility of keeping anything under wraps, it’s really rare for a movie to sneak up on me. That is to say, most of the time when I pop a flick in my DVD player, I already know virtually everything there is to know about it. But recently I got a refreshing change of pace with Michael Lander’s Peacock. Aside from the cast, I knew nothing about it going in. No trailers, no synopses, no images…nothing. And that made the unexpected quirk at the core of the film (revealed in the opening moments) truly surprising and the film itself that much more engrossing.
Now, because being surprised made me enjoy it more than I otherwise would have, I really don’t want to give away the twist on this side of the jump. So I’ll just say that Peacock is about a deeply disturbed 1950s bank teller named John Skillpa (Cillian Murphy) with a secret lady friend who, as the film goes on, becomes less and less satisfied with staying secret. I recommend that you go out and rent it without knowing anything more specific; seriously, don’t even read the synopsis on the back of the case…it’ll be a lot more fun that way. Not interested? Then hit the jump for the necessarily spoiler-heavy review.
As the film opens, the protagonist and his lady friend are caught up in a routine that sees her existing solely to meet his needs: making him meals, getting him off to work, doing his laundry. She doesn’t even leave the house. As we find out early on, John suffered immensely at the hands of his mother, who left him emotionally crippled and barely able to function in the real world. However, he was so dependent upon her that after she died, he had to find a replacement. And so he did…in the form of a split personality.
Yes, in John’s off-hours, a “mother personality” named Emma emerges. He dresses up in drag and putters around the house, doing home-maker stuff, until the “John mind” reemerges. Both personalities are aware of one another and more or less fine with the way of things…that is, until a train runs off the tracks and into their backyard while mom’s hanging laundry, revealing her existence to the town (who assume that she’s John’s wife) and, more significantly, inciting in mommy dearest a desire to break free from her domestic bondage. John is vehemently against this and desperately tries to pull her back into the shell in which they’ve been living for so long. However, it slowly becomes clear that’s not going to happen. And with neither willing to compromise, one of them will have to go.
The film, for the most part, is an intriguing, low-key little drama (with thriller-ish elements toward the end) that’s bolstered by good performances and the novelty of the central twist. Lander plots a story that, though sputtering toward the end, is never what you’d call predictable and thereby is very engaging up to a certain point. Furthermore, he crafts an effectively morose film world that really grounds a concept that, on the surface, sounds kind of silly. And kudos to him for a seamlessly pulled-off first-act fakeout…the movie begins with Murphy in drag as the mother, and I had no idea it was him until Lander wanted me to.
Speaking of Murphy (28 Days Later, Batman Begins), needless to say, he had to carry this movie, and he never even breaks stride. He turns in a pair of grounded, believable performances, convincingly rendering John and Emma as two distinct characters. Lander deserves some praise here as well, but it’s truly a credit to Murphy that I was able to completely suspend my disbelief and immediately buy into this somber drama without ever becoming distracted by the inherent kookiness of it all. He’s also supported by an excellent cast including Ellen Page, Susan Sarandon, Keith Carradine, Bill Pullman, and Josh Lucas, who are all a welcome presence, despite a few of them towering over their relatively sparse roles.
Unfortunately, the film can’t quite make it all the way on performance and ingenuity of concept alone. Somewhere around the 3/4 mark, the novelty of the central quirk wears off and Peacock starts treading water a bit. Lander tries to push his movie into thriller mode as the two personalities battle for control. But despite the action onscreen, it never really deviates from being a small, melancholic film with two central characters that, while well-rendered, haven’t really won our sympathy or warranted an emotional investment. Because of this, there’s no real tension, and as interest wanes, the film just kinda sputters to an indifferent conclusion.
The strength of the first three quarters, however, is enough for me to give this a rental recommendation. It’s got an intriguing concept that, if nothing else, makes it unique among a sea of largely homogenous vid store options. And ultimately, 3/4 of Peacock is probably more compelling than 4/4 of a lot of a lot of other flicks you’ll come across.