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Feature: Norman Bates Reimagined

The writer and director behind 2010’s Peacock did not start out with a story that had heavy shades of Psycho, but what ultimately resulted is a retelling of the life of Norman Bates, possibly before owning that roadside hotel.

Cillian Murphy skillfully plays both John and Emma Skillpa, two parts of one man’s personality. John is an awkward sort who works in a bank in the town of Peacock during an era that looks much like the 1960s or 1970s. He interacts poorly with others and prefers to be left to himself. Emma, who is John dressed as a woman complete with wig and makeup, hides herself from the world as she quickly removes laundry from the clothes line, peers through the curtains at the neighbor’s kid, and prepares John’s breakfast and sack lunch. She then returns to the bedroom where she removes her wig and makeup and changes into the clothes she has laid out for John.

Peacock (2010)

Thus is our introduction to the dissociative identity disorder –also known as multiple personality disorder– John is taxed by. There is no grand reveal as we discover that Murphy is in fact not a woman, so the story instead leaves us thinking we will now deal with the man’s struggle to keep his secret in this small town. What disrupts the two personas’ way of life is the crashing of a train through the property fence as Emma is removing the wash from the line. The neighbors rush to her aid and wonder who she is, ultimately deciding the woman is John’s wife. Next, a local politician wants to use the train wreck as a site for a political rally because the caboose had a banner for his opponent’s re-election. The once-timid Emma begins to leave her shell as she accepts that the town now knows she exists, while John tries to backtrack on his feminine side’s decisions and keep the secret in the dark.

Like Norman Bates, the psycho who dressed in his dead mother’s clothes, donned a wig and killed young women of whom his matriarch would have disapproved, John too has a twisted history with his mother. We learn she had died one year prior –and he “met” Emma the next day– and also discover the woman mentally abused the boy by not only coddling him, but in one instance paying a young woman to have sex with him in the mother’s bed, while the mother watched, in addition to forcing him to do “horrible” sexual things. John also tells another character that Emma is not his wife, which leads one to deduce she is instead his manifestation of mother. Director and Co-Author Michael Lander said in his research into dissociative disorder, which included the study of murderer Ed Gein on which Norman Bates was based, he found that the condition is not hereditary but environmentally induced, requiring mental trauma and poor childhood nurturing with many patients reporting child abuse.

When John, becoming angry at Emma for interfering and inviting guests to his home, donates the woman’s clothes to a shelter, Emma is forced to enter the mysterious room at the end of the hall –the mother’s room. Here she finds photos of John as a child, hears the squeak of the bed springs where the man was forced to have sex with the young woman, and discovers some of the mother’s clothes. When Emma next reappears in a blue dress described by the hired woman as what the mother wore on that dreadful day, we are assured that this personality is in fact not a wife role.

SPOILER Murder is not a regular activity for John or Emma as it is for Norman, at least not at this point in his life. Emma, however, does seduce a man and takes him to a motel where she hits him with a crowbar and sets the room ablaze. Another character has been invited to the location to discover the scene and deduce that it is John who has died in the flames, thus allowing Emma to permanently take over the body. She has also by this point shaved off the man’s eyebrows and penciled in feminine ones, which also forced John to remain detached from the body. One must also wonder if, now that John is unable to reappear, Emma/John will leave town and perhaps purchase that same motel where the plot of Psycho might unfold. END SPOILER

John vs. Emma

Peacock could not have been what it was without Murphy’s involvement. The man proved himself in 2005’s Breakfast on Pluto to make quite a beautiful cross-dresser and he does that here again. Makeup, hair and clothing designers for the film also perfectly created Emma as a woman rather than a man in drag. But the two personalities really are made distinct by Murphy’s acting. His facial expressions and carriage are much different as John than as Emma, something we see at the film’s start as soon as the man removes his dress and transitions into the male personality.

Tragically, Peacock was a straight-to-DVD release despite having the star power of Murphy, Susan Sarandon,  Ellen Page, Josh Lucas and Bill Pullman. I had no expectations of the story when I went in, so it surely took me for a ride and not in the direction I expected. It has characteristics of a psychological thriller, artful drama and horror film rolled into one. I can truly say I loved this movie as an homage/reinterpretation of everyone’s favorite psycho, whether the writer-director intended that or not.

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