‘Raising Cain’ – Reconciling the Brian De Palma Thriller’s Divided Identity After 31 Years

Raising Cain, Brian De Palma’s maddening dissociative identity disorder thriller, remains one of the director’s most inscrutable films three decades later.

“Does Carter know what he did?”
“Carter didn’t do anything. Cain did all the killing.”

Brian De Palma is an absolute master visual storyteller and his movies are always cinematically stunning even when they don’t fully work as films. For every Carrie and Blow Out there’s a Snake Eyes and The Black Dahlia, but Snake Eyes still kicks off with a twelve-and-a-half minute unbroken tracking shot and Black Dahlia turns the camera into an airborne omniscient spectator during its dynamic gangland shootout and simultaneous corpse discovery. 1992’s Raising Cain comes at an important period of transition for De Palma. Sandwiched between The Bonfire of the Vanities and Carlito’s Way–ostensibly the two extremes of De Palma’s career–it’s easy for Raising Cain to get lost in the shuffle despite its completely gonzo nature and scenery-chomping performance from John Lithgow

Raising Cain is the story of Dr. Carter Nix (John Lithgow), a revered child psychologist who experiences a mental break and struggles to stay in control when other identities fight for authority. A hostage in his own body, Carter heads down a dark path that endangers his entire family while he relives his painful past. Raising Cain, for decades, was criticized for its confusing construction and was even viewed by some to be De Palma’s attempt at satire of his tried-and-true genre of choice. In reality, Raising Cain is an earnest–perhaps too earnest–movie that’s been misunderstood for a different reason altogether. Now, on its 31st anniversary, Raising Cain has become even more fascinating on a meta-narrative level. The film has turned into this bifurcated, jumbled experience that tries to messily reconcile many different ideas and tones at once through its two exceptionally distinct edits, like Carter’s own fractured psyche.

Seasoned De Palma fans will recognize how Raising Cain plays all of the director’s trademark hits, but those who aren’t already into De Palma’s style and aesthetic will have little to connect with in the heightened movie. It’s definitely a polarizing De Palma title, even for the hardcore fans, but Peet Gelderblom’s “director’s cut” edit does deliver a better version of this movie that creatively plays with non-linear storytelling. This might have been confusing in the early ‘90s, but audiences would learn to love this structural technique only a few years later with Pulp Fiction and Memento. It’s curious to consider how this avant-garde approach, if left undisturbed, might have come across as revolutionary rather than confusing, which was the fear. The theatrical cut attempts to bury, hide, and normalize these unique flairs–not unlike what’s done to Carter to smooth out his wrinkles so that he’s the most conventional, boring, mainstream version of himself. It’s another powerful, albeit unintentional meta element to Raising Cain that still rings true and makes the story behind the film and its two separate versions almost as interesting as the movie itself.

The divergent responses to the two cuts of Raising Cain emphasizes the “power of the edit.” The theatrical cut of Raising Cain, while chaotic, still led to a sect of audiences who believed that it’s meant to operate on dream logic and that it’s not supposed to make sense. The belief is that it’s ludicrous that De Palma has done so many better versions of this type of movie and that the audience knows that De Palma knows better. This dream logic rationale to Raising Cain’s theatrical cut may work, but it wasn’t De Palma’s original intention. Nevertheless, two complementary and contrasting movies can be born out of the same story, all depending on how it’s told and its dominant perspective. It would have been better if De Palma’s original vision could have made its way into theaters, but if any of his movies needs to suffer an identity crisis through its edit then it’s at least appropriate that it’s Raising Cain. 

Raising Cain is dense with De Palma’s typical themes of dishonest women, overbearing fathers, and unhealthy familial relations between the three. It’s hard not to think of De Palma’s own frayed relationship with his doctor dad when Carter gets abused and mocked by his father, even if De Palma hasn’t acknowledged the connection between the two himself.

Raising Cain is hardly the first of De Palma’s movies to relitigate the same layered questions of identity that Alfred Hitchcock first unpacked in Psycho. Both Sisters and Dressed to Kill are De Palma’s previous attempts at dissociative identity disorder in one way or another, all of which are quite tone-deaf and ignorant on the material even if there seem to be good intentions. It’s important to understand that Raising Cain is very outdated when it comes to understanding Carter’s diagnosis. Raising Cain shouldn’t be viewed as an accurate, or even sensitive, portrayal of this condition. It’s a heightened boogeyman that operates in plain sight. Accordingly, there are shades of Dressed to Kill, Sisters, and Psycho in Raising Cain. The exceptional final shot also riffs on one of the scariest moments from Dario Argento’s Tenebre. However, more than anything, Raising Cain comes across as the synthesis between Body Double’s lurid thrills and Femme Fatale’s labyrinthine dream logic. Raising Cain is the messy stepping-stone between both of these more fully-formed movies that all riff on comparable themes.

It’s first necessary to understand the circumstances that surrounded Raising Cain’s production in order to better make sense of its significant structural changes. The colossal failure of De Palma’s misappropriated Tom Hanks vehicle, Bonfire of the Vanities, caused the genre director to leave town, regroup, and start a family with producer Gale Ann Hurd. This ultimately led to De Palma’s return to his comfort food of sexual thrillers with Raising Cain, something he intrinsically knew he could do. Raising Cain was the result of Gale Anne Hurd making a deal at Universal for her and De Palma. Raising Cain, which was initially titled “Father’s Day,” combined De Palma’s interest in dissociative identity disorder and his own liaison with a married woman and the life she lived when she wasn’t with him. “What would happen if I just let her sleep all night?” De Palma wondered. “How would you explain that to your husband?”

De Palma admits that Jenny’s (Lolita Davidovitch) narrative should have been Raising Cain’s central driving force and that Carter’s baby-napping and frayed psyche story should have been developed later into the film and not function as the movie’s introduction. De Palma regrets giving into test audience input that Jenny’s soap opera-like material’s soft impact was less interesting than Carter’s more aggressive content with Lithgow. De Palma would edit Raising Cain’s theatrical cut to pull Carter’s storyline forward, but it wrecks the movie in the process and has led to years of criticism.

The biggest change in Raising Cain’s theatrical edit is that the movie’s middle suddenly becomes the opening scene. This also means that the audience begins the film fully aware that Carter Nix is unstable rather than just some mild-mannered, passive husband. This revised introduction also makes Jenny slightly more sympathetic since the audience now knows Carter is a murderer. However, this comes at the expense of any suspense, it creates jumbled storytelling, and causes more internal logic problems than any empathy is worth. It’s absolutely bonkers that this was all done without any reshoots, which could fix so many of these issues and would be the modern approach that’s taken. In ‘92, Raising Cain literally just changes around the order of scenes, which seems like a flawed, chaotic approach, because it is. This edit causes the theatrical version to go off the rails in the first few minutes, which is too much for most general audiences–and even many De Palma fans–to take.

Raising Cain’s theatrical edit feels foolish with its tempo as Lithgow almost immediately whips out the chloroform and the first of his other identities arrives only a few minutes after meeting the character (Lithgow plays five separate “characters” here, in a role that feels like a problematic precursor to James McAvoy in Split). There’s no foundation to hold onto so of course this feels like a joke that’s meant to be a critique of the genre. Raising Cain still works when viewed through that lens, even if that wasn’t De Palma’s intention. The film’s remarkable visual language turns into the best defense for what comes across as weak writing and thin characters.

When questioned over whether this film is a spoof or intentionally broad, De Palma admits that Lithgow’s asides are meant to inject a wry sense of humor into the events. That being said, the film’s central mystery is still meant to be taken seriously. If anything, this humor is used to lower the audience’s defenses so that the suspense hits even harder. In the end, this is ultimately the film’s issue and where this disconnect begins. Many of the movie’s scenes that focus on Jenny even have lighting that’s more evocative of a gauzy Nora Ephron rom-com than the standard thriller. 

There’s truly a 15-minute span where everything that’s communicated to the audience is either a dream, flashback, or the rarely-seen “flashback within a dream.” All with expository voiceover on top of it, too. This reaches such a ludicrous point that it becomes clear that none of these “clues” are meant to actually be helpful to the audience in terms of solving this mystery. All of this is foreshadowed when Raising Cain opens up with a sequence where dozens of clocks all provide conflicting information. This is meant to hint to the audience that the movie is full of unreliable narrators and that cinema’s typical visual identifiers and symbols will work against the viewer. The first thing that Jenny does upon the purchase of the clock is change its time. This indicates that the information that it’s provided isn’t only incorrect, but that Jenny strives to control the narrative through this manipulation. It’s not dissimilar to what she’s trying to do in her relationship with Carter, or what De Palma inevitably does when he recut the film, effectively changing and rewinding time. It’s the type of wry trick that only a visual storyteller like De Palma can accomplish.

The original aim with Raising Cain, and what’s effectively restored in the director’s cut, is a film that more closely follows Psycho’s structure. It conditions the audience to think that it’s telling Jenny’s story, only for her to become Carter’s victim, at which point he takes over the narrative. Re-editing this and pulling Carter’s material to the film’s first act destroys any intentional Hitchcock homages and their accompanying surprises. Raising Cain’s theatrical cut ruins the big twist with Carter, but this version of the movie seems unsure if Carter’s condition is even supposed to be a twist. The film’s poster and marketing certainly give it away and lean into the idea that the joy of this film is to watch “Lithgow do Psycho”–which it is–but this shouldn’t have to come at the cost of losing this twist.

Raising Cain pointedly recreates the story beats and subversive tropes from Psycho and Dressed to Kill. However, as soon as the viewer begins to question why De Palma is repeating himself, Raising Cain breaks this pattern and reveals that Jenny has in fact survived her early attack. The audience is similarly conditioned to think Carter’s dad is an internal manifestation like the other personalities, only to learn that he is actually real. It’s an effective twist, but one that only works after the audience has already been inundated with tropes.

On an aesthetic level, Raising Cain also struggles to reconcile itself. The film utilizes some evocative split-screen sequences that are incredible. However, there are others that are completely unnecessary and play like a parody of how much De Palma idolizes Hitchcock. It’s basically the polar opposite of Larry McConkey’s masterful five-minute Steadicam tracking shot in the police department. This sequence initially feels equally gratuitous, but it’s at least technically impressive and proof that De Palma knows how to uniquely block a scene that would otherwise just be clunky dialogue. De Palma plays with the audience as intense exposition is delivered and the camera careens around this police department and keeps the audience visually on their toes while they must stay on top of the avalanche of information that inundates them. Fresh theories are introduced and dismissed by the end of the unbroken tracking shot. Later, a masterful three-storey blocking exercise at a motel during the film’s final set piece allows the camera to freely move across the building and parse out tiny details on each level of the motel before they all impossibly connect together. Raising Cain gives audiences the best and worst of De Palma’s visual flairs and compulsion to creatively tell this story through the camera, just like how the film presents the best and worst of Carter.

De Palma was disappointed with Raising Cain’s theatrical cut, but it’s ironically one of his most financially successful movies (it more than tripled its reported $12 million budget). “It worked out rather well, as strange as it may seem,” discloses De Palma in Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow’s documentary on the filmmaker’s career. It’s a very compartmentalized view on his years with Gale Anne Hurd (their marriage from 1991-1993 is close to exactly the tenure in which they made this movie), the family they started, and him going back to his comfort zone. The two would part ways and go back to “the lives they hadn’t finished” in De Palma’s words. Oddly enough, this doesn’t mean a huge push for more sexual thrillers from De Palma, but Instead glitzier, grittier crime dramas in the vein of The Untouchables, and Scarface, with Carlito’s Way being his next film.

31 years after its initial release, Raising Cain is finally being properly appraised and viewed as the ambitious oddity that it was intended to be thanks to Peet Gelderblom’s dedicated work on the film’s director’s cut (which De Palma himself approved of and included on Raising Cain’s 2016 Shout Factory Blu-ray release). De Palma has disappeared from the spotlight in recent years and his last major studio release was 2006’s The Black Dahlia. Despite these struggles, De Palma’s works continue to resonate with modern audiences and it’s easy to forget that he was responsible for kickstarting the still-running Mission: Impossible film series. Hopefully De Palma has at least one or two more films in him and, if so, that they’ll conjure Raising Cain’s chaotic energy and take big swings in a genre that De Palma lives and breathes. In Raising Cain during a crucial conflict, Cain brashly shouts at his other half, Carter, “Don’t be so obvious!” One can’t help but imagine De Palma voicing the same sentiments towards the current crop of studio thrillers. 

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