Peacock is an odd film. It’s billed as a thriller, but it’s really not. The cast includes Cillian Murphy, Ellen Page, Susan Sarandon, Bill Pullman and Josh Lucas, but I don’t really remember it hitting theaters. It’s by a first time director. It seems to have Psycho on its mind, but never in the direction of a true psycho. Some of the actors seem to be acting in a period drama (Murphy, Sarandon), some in a modern drama (Page, Lucas), and at least one in an absurdist, Gilliam-like, nervous comedy (Pullman).
This quick plot synopsis doesn’t contain spoilers, because you a) find this info out in the trailer, and b) find it out in the first 10 minutes (or less if you’re an astute viewer) of the film. Murphy plays John Skillpa. He also plays Emma Skillpa. They’re the same person, though no one in the small town of Peacock knows about his cross-dressing penchant. They all know him as a quiet, hard-working male clerk. When a train plows through his backyard his alter-ego is revealed, though the townspeople assume it’s his wife. John and Emma gradually become more and more at odds with one-another as various pressures, including a campaigning feminist (Sarandon), the mother of his bastard child (Page), the local sheriff (Lucas), and his intruding boss (Pullman) all because curious, suspicious, and/or nosy.
One of the biggest flaws in Peacock is actually how it’s billed. As I mentioned before, this is not a thriller. It’s a psychological drama. It’s slow-moving, and at times suspenseful, particularly late in the film when Emma starts to get the best of John, but its roots lie in a softer side – a look at a person who is convinced that an outside world cannot understand him/her.
Director Lander shoots the film slowly and with attention to small shots that add up to the minutiae of John/Emma’s life – the hands on a clock, a plate of food, shoes on a carpet. He cleverly uses these images later to show that one personality is overtaking the other. The film is frequently lit high-key, and the colors are dull. The camera moves, but with slow dollies in and out. It feels like the set and pacing for a Pride and Prejudice rather than something more sinister.
And that’s another one of the flaws of the film. It doesn’t quite know which it wants to be. At its height, when the personalities are blending to their most extreme, it feels like Lander and co-screenwriter Ryan O Ray will finally turn a corner and take these either to psycho-drama or further towards quiet restraint. Instead, the climax rests somewhere uneasily in between and, while certainly taking into account how far past torment and deep-seeded emotional issues can take a person, it never satisfyingly says enough about John/Emma’s mindset. When Lander and O Ray rely on a sequence of quick, vague, first-person flashbacks at the end it undermines the quiet, linear crawl that the film has undertaken thus far.
There’s a whole lot to be written about the interaction between Bill Pullman and Cillian Murphy, but I’ll make it short here. Theirs could be taken as easily from Brazil as from The Dark Backward. The office, though featuring the mise-en-scene of a 1950s bank, produces endless and unnamed stacks of reports for John to work on. Pullman’s Edmund French is constantly sweating the bureaucratic small stuff and his tics and twitches feel like they are supposed to make up some mockery or critique of small-town, underwhelming and unnecessary business practices…but it’s not there in the rest of the film and doesn’t make sense as placed. Every scene between Pullman and Murphy, though kind of funny, feels like an entirely different film than the rest.
There is one really fantastic moment in this film. SPOILER: Lander takes care to always keep the characters of John and Emma separate throughout the film. They never merge until one critical moment. We get a shot of Emma sitting at the kitchen table in the way, place and time that John always sits. This (using the aforementioned small-shot montage) is our first hint that she’s taking over. There’s a cut to Maggie (Page) answering the phone and from her perspective we hear John talking. The next shot, and the edit that brings us there, is awesome. It’s a cut to a slightly low-angle close-up of Emma. But she’s talking as John. It’s chilling to finally see the offset between the two in real time, and the close-up and L-cut (leading with the audio) reinforces it. It’s also the moment we finally realize that he may have some semblance over control of both, but also that they are becoming one, and that they won’t be able to coexist. The series of shots – medium shot of Emma at the table, medium close-up of Maggie, close-up of Emma talking as John – are a great combination of edits to maintain suspense and combining visuals and aurals to do the same.