DEATH AND THE MAIDENS

The first film by New Zealander Peter Jackson to gain much notice here was last year's Dead Alive. This frenzied, farcical splatter parody, about people turned into cannibalistic zombies through the bite of the dreaded Sumatran rat monkey, was like a cinematic coup de grƒce--it was so revoltingly, yet hilariously, gory that it neutralized splatter as a genre, at least for a while. Gore films will still be made, but now they can safely be ignored. They'll either pale beside Dead Alive, or, in trying to top it, become the butt of its joke. This is not an inconsiderable service to pop culture, and it was clear from Dead Alive, hard to stomach though much of it was, that Jackson was a talented and amusing young fellow. But it certainly didn't presage the startling power of his new work, Heavenly Creatures. Based on the events leading to a real-life murder in Christchurch, New Zealand, in 1952, Heavenly Creatures has all the elements a classic movie needs--a great theme, a gripping, muscular narrative sense, visual splendor, terror, humor, eroticism, terrific acting, and a social and moral context. In just about every important way, it may legitimately be called a masterpiece.

Heavenly Creatures is nearly as remarkable for what it avoids as for what it accomplishes. Trying to dodge the banalities, both cinematic and thematic, of the true-crime genre, Jackson maps out a mindset that leads, in this circumstance, to murder--he illustrates the contribution of social factors without blaming society or slighting individual responsibility, yet he doesn't comfort us with moral finger-wagging. It's an impressive balancing act.

The story, which is notorious in Jackson's home country, is about the disastrous results of an intense friendship between two teenage schoolgirls, Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme (the marvelous newcomers Melanie Lynskey and Kate Winslet, respectively). The former, from a working-class New Zealand family, is shy and plain; the latter, daughter of wealthy expatriate English professionals, is beautiful and self-assured. The two form an almost immediate bond based on a passion for Mario Lanza and sword-and-sorcery fantasy stories. As the friendship grows, Pauline and Juliet, both aspiring writers, begin collaborating on an elaborate dynastic saga set in a mythical kingdom of their own invention. They have sleepovers, and the connection between them does, eventually, become overtly sexual, although this seems less a matter of orientation than of their cliquish exclusivity toward each other. The common remark about highly imaginative children--that they're "off in their own little world"--is taken to dangerously literal, obsessional extremes by these two, and that they enter this imaginary wonderland together reinforces its seeming reality for both of them. They call the private mental paradise they share the "Fourth World." It's a vision of a heaven suited only to such favored creatures as they.

The triumph of Jackson's direction is in the freedom with which he blends several points of view, and the uncanny seamlessness of the results. He opens the film with the horrifying aftermath of this relationship's disastrous result, then flashes back to Pauline and Juliet's initial meeting. He clearly won't settle for mere case study--for looking at the subject only from the outside. So in a series of weird, dazzling, epic-scale special-effects sequences, he takes us into their "Fourth World," making the private mythos as real for us as for the girls. Yet Jackson isn't about to settle only for this, either. He's too smart not to see the danger that in making coherent Pauline and Juliet's mentality, he could romanticize, even rationalize, it. So he takes an external angle on the story, as well--several, in fact. He lets Juliet's mother and father be caricatures of "modern" parenting--they're cartoons of smug, unshakable self-centeredness--and exploits this side of the story for its satirical possibilities. Yet he presents Pauline's domestic life in convincingly realistic terms. Her mother (superbly played by Sarah Peirse) is such a touchingly careworn, unheavenly creature that, without lapsing into the maudlin, she keeps our sympathies here on earth.

Jackson (who wrote the script, with Frances Walsh, based on Pauline's rhapsodic--and incriminating--diaries) uses the cinematic possibilities of the girls' soaring adolescent fancies to intoxicate us, then keeps forcing us back into a clearly perceived real world. Since we're also never far from the memory of that indistinct but chilling framing scene at the film's beginning, we can see what none of the characters can--the horror of what's inexorably coming. The eclecticism of Jackson's approach creates a sense of omniscience, but it pulls the viewer inside the characters as few current films do.

The director is so confidently in control of his material that he can even indulge in movie-movie jokes, like his spooky homage to The Third Man. Here Pauline and Juliet, shrieking girlishly, picture themselves terrorized by the specter of Orson Welles, whom they have already established as their private symbol of ungainly male genius. Heavenly Creatures isn't a thriller in the usual sense, but it can be deeply frightening, because it gets at the theme of murder in a way that Natural Born Killers, for all its loud insistence, never did. Oliver Stone's film scolded our culture for breeding killers, while Jackson's takes us to the point in individual human hearts where that breeding takes place. It's True Detective meets Merchant-Ivory--it's a horror movie set in the secret garden.

 
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