Dir. Michael Lander || 2010 || USA
Peacock is a film that went direct-to-DVD recently after sitting on the shelf for 2 years. While not a horror film per se (most are crediting it as a "psychological thriller"), the inability to categorize the film is probably one of the reasons why the film was shelved. I'm not sure if the other was that the film prominently features Cillian Murphy in drag, although Peacock is not the first film where he has appeared in drag. Perhaps Lionsgate felt that America, unlike Britain, was not ready to see The Scarecrow from the Nolan-era Batman films* in drag. Also, Cillian Murphy in drag is prettier than a whole lot of women.
I think that Peacock, even with its somewhat problematic and confusing third act, is a distant cousin to Psycho. Both films feature a shy young men who were abused by their mothers, leading to a split personality disorder with a male and female personality. But Peacock does not treat the split personality as a twist, but as a jumping off point for the film. John Skillpa is a banker of the Milton variety who is so shy that he has trouble speaking to people he works with or has known his entire life living in Peacock, Nebraska. His mother died a year and a half ago, and he still lives in his childhood home. He hides baseball cards and candy bars in a box outside of his home as a habit from childhood, not realizing that as an adult, you can eat candy bars whenever you want. Emma Skillpa tends to the house and laundry and makes the meals, leaving notes for John with his meals and reminders to go to the store on the way home from work. There is a solid routine for this, with Emma being up early in the day and taking care of things before John has to be at work. One day while Emma is out taking the laundry off of the clothesline, a train derails and narrowly misses her. The neighbors arrive and believe Emma to be John's wife. As more attention is brought onto the Skillpa household, the personality breaks become more divided, and Emma becomes more dominant, much to John's dismay and confusion, when he finds that he has been missing work more often and Emma has been doing and agreeing to things that he did not want to happen, like a political rally in the backyard that also functions as a fundraiser for the local women's shelter.
If you're wondering why no one notices how similar John and Emma look, it is at least partially because Cillian Murphy as John is not the typical pretty man version of Cillian Murphy. Neither character has his trademark bright blue eyes. As John, he looks middle aged, he has some wrinkles and a bad haircut; whereas Emma's skin is smoothed out and she has perfect hair. John and Emma both seem as if they come from the 1950s or 1960s while everyone else in Peacock lives in modern times for the most part (the exception being Bill Pullman's character, who dresses as if he either lives in the 1960s or 1970s and has the air of a desperate used car salesman about him). This is evident in the way the Skillpa's dress, down to the details of the house. John's bicycle is vintage, as is Emma's car, stove, kitchen clock. When the break begins to happen, John is more willing to display the old "I'm the man of the house!" attitude in public, much to the shock of his co-workers and Fannie, the mayor's wife who runs the woman's shelter (Susan Sarandon).
There is a weird tension to this film. Part of it is due to its similarity in some ways to Psycho, the other is the fact that Murphy has become an expert at portraying mentally ill people to the point where just knowing that he is not playing a normal person ratchets up the tension level so that you know something bad is going to happen to someone in the film. This perhaps means that he is officially a character actor now.
What is interesting about Peacock is not only its treatment of split personalities, but how John deals with it. As the flim wears on and Emma is taking over, John is in denial at first and tries to fight it. This includes offering the money to the local waitress/prostitute Maggie (Ellen Page) who bore his child so that she can have her wish to get out of Peacock and let her son have a better life. Characterizing Maggie as a the typical "hooker with a heart of gold" is taking the easy way out. She is just a poor and desperate woman. John's mother had been paying her off before her death, because she forced John and Maggie to have sex while she was in the room. John offers the money and interest in leaving with her and their son after Emma has gotten Maggie placed into the women's shelter, where clothes and food are provided and she can learn new skills to find a better job. He begins to believe that if he stays out of his house and leaves Peacock, he can leave the Emma personality behind. He donates the Emma clothes to the women's shelter. He moves into a motel only to find that he had packed more women's clothes with him. Both John and Emma begin smoking cigarettes, which is a hackneyed split personality character trait and trick typically, but it is used with some subtlety here because it indicates that a bigger breakdown is in the future, we just do not know how or when. And this is where the film gets a tad confusing, as the blur between John and Emma is not delineated anymore.
Because John is the more introverted character and does not always telegraph his emotions well (although no one buries his face into his hands to express anguish better than Cillian Murphy), we do not know how or when he decided to kill the John part of his personality and become Emma. Perhaps he feels that as John, he has no future. He is a broken man with the inability to connect to anyone. At work, he is like Milton from Office Space, but not miserable about it. It is only when he has made some sort of decision, whether it is to run off with Maggie or to kill off the male part of his personality, that he begins to act chatty towards his co-workers and neighbors. It is the typical behavior of someone who is about to commit suicide, as they see themselves as about to be free. Emma is trying to do good within the community and is connecting with women such as Maggie and Fannie. She is friendly and more understanding of people and their imperfections and indiscretions. But the dark side still exists within her. She somewhat secretly goes about trying to find out how she can adopt Jake away from Maggie, and at the end of the film she takes a photo of Jake that is not unlike the picture of baby John throughout the film. She realizes that because she still has John's memories, that she could never have a child without perhaps turning into John's terrible mother, whom she is already dressing as. The film ends with Emma giving all of John's savings to Maggie and Jake, and telling her to get as far away from Peacock as possible. The ending implies that the personality break is not over, and killing the other half is not an automatic and easy solution, as Emma begins to shut herself off inside of the house as the rally continues, not unlike John's behavior.
I think there is some odd victim/survivor dichotomy going on within John and Emma. John was a survivor of ongoing child abuse into adulthood, and this allows Emma to identify with Maggie, who was also a victim of the abuse of John's mother, as well as a victim of, as catch-all as it sounds, oppression in general. The film hints that the world was not kind to Maggie to begin with, and being a poor single mother in a small town does not help matters. This is why Emma wants to be helpful towards the local women's shelter, which helps out the abused women and children of the town. The film only hints as to whether or not people like the sheriff and other townspeople know that John was abused as a child. They know something is off about John and his mother, but they kept their distance. Not much is mentioned about John's father, so it is not known whether he died when John was a child or if John even knew who his father was. I do not know if Peacock is trying to say that given John's sort of old school attitude towards gender ideas, that it is hard for a man to admit to being a victim of abuse, and this is part of the reason for his personality split, or if it is trying to say something entirely different.
*I am trying my best not to insert a rant towards the treatment of The Scarecrow in the recent Batman films soaked in the nostalgia of the 90s Batman cartoon, where The Scarecrow was a terrifying character.