1991 and 1992 were considered watershed years for Woody Allen. While Shadows and Fog represented the end of the filmmaker’s ten-year partnership with the failing Orion Pictures, his next movie, Husbands & Wives, represented the end of his partnership with lover Mia Farrow. Husbands & Wives’ creative ambition had been, unfairly in my estimation, juxtaposed against the real-life breakup of Allen and Farrow after Farrow made public her accusation that Allen was having an affair with her adopted daughter, Soon-Yi Previn.
It didn’t help matters that in Husbands & Wives, Allen’s character shares a romantic tryst with a young student played by Juliette Lewis. Shadows and Fog, adapted in part from his 1975 play Death, has an innocence to it that could never be replicated in the new age of Social Media witch-hunts and pandering in the court of public opinion. This is the filtered public persona of Allen immortalized on celluloid; the character we’re used to seeing: a buffoon caught up in circumstances beyond his control while all his dirty laundry is aired by ancillary characters spouting exposition.
Like Interiors, Stardust Memories, Zelig, and Husbands & Wives, the movie is unapologetically experimental — homage (but only visually) to German Expressionism, specifically the work of Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau, but this is a Woody Allen movie through and through, utilizing his knack for anachronistic dialogue that doesn’t seem out-of-place in the film’s indeterminate time period. An unnamed city lives in fear of a madman who murders under the cover of darkness.
Allen’s Kleinman character is awakened in the middle of the night by a vigilante mob who conscript him to join in their nightly rounds because they’ve lost faith in the police to protect them. Kleinman exists as an all-purpose punching bag, hated or barely tolerated by nearly everyone he knows with the exception of kind-hearted circus sword-swallower Irmy (Farrow) and a gaggle of philosophically-enlightened prostitutes led by Lily Tomlin pulling an all-nighter.
After discovering her boyfriend Paul (John Malkovich) in the arms of a trapeze artist (Madonna), Irmy decides to abandon the circus. She is taken in by the prostitutes, and has sex with college student John Cusack for $700, but is so racked with guilt, she donates the money to the Church. The vigilante mob has splintered into factions, all of whom disagree with each other about putting a plan in motion to capture the killer. If you’re not with us, you’re against us.
The clueless and incompetent law enforcement authorities turn their investigation on the public, shining spotlights on friends and acquaintances rather than searching for the random element. The Church colludes with the authorities targeting suspects on the basis of public perception of integrity. When Irmy reasons the Church will not use the money she has donated to help the poor and less fortunate (personified by a starving woman and her baby), she asks Kleinman to take back half the money. The Church retaliates by putting his name on their list of “troublemakers.”
Kleinman, regardless of his physical stature and cowardly nature, becomes a suspect in short order, simply because nobody seems to care for him, thereby reinforcing the idea of confirmation bias. Shadows and Fog is not necessarily a movie about a killer on the loose, rather the personification of fear; a cacophony of ideas as weapons, the mob mentality, and the nadir of rationality. While we do see the killer and are witness to his acts, it is the reaction/overreaction from the mob that feeds the narrative.
The shuffling of those ideas makes the pursuit of the killer altogether trivial and ultimately fruitless. The hypocrisy of the characters in positions of authority, either assumed or imposed, over Kleinman are used as thematic cudgels in which to denigrate him. In one scene, Kleinman confronts a peeping tom who is revealed to be his employer. He learns that he has not only lost an important promotion to a colleague (played by Wallace Shawn) but may lose his job for exposing his boss’s nocturnal activities.
The movie upon release was criticized for an overabundance of style in cinematic techniques. The casting of celebrities and movie stars such as Jodie Foster, Kathy Bates, and Madonna in small roles was seen as a distraction to reviewers at the time who thought this was (as Variety noted) “a nice try that falls short.” Some critics even call it Allen’s worst film. Over time, the movie improves on its central conceit — a study of fear and the effect of fear on groups.
These days, the movie could be seen as a disheveled fantasy, replacing the idea of the killer with Covid. Everybody has an opinion about Covid. There are theorists and skeins of misinformation. There are troublemakers and people who don’t want to get involved. There are mobs, and there those who assign blame. In Shadows and Fog, there is but one person who believes the killer was sent by God to punish man. Indeed, given the ambiguous ending where the killer is trapped by Kleinman and a magician and then escapes his chains without explanation, the killer could be seen as a malevolent spirit sent to terrorize a body and never intended to be vanquished.
There is no room for reason in Shadows and Fog, unless you consider Cusack’s proselytizing screed, but his is a more nihilistic view of the world and the certainty of brutality than it is of hope. In a way, Cusack’s character is Woody Allen’s comment as the writer and director. The film’s paramount coda (revealed by the magician Armstead) is that man needs illusion just as much, or more so, than reality. That perhaps the nature of reality is either less blunt or stimulated as a result of our need for magic and illusion. The somewhat hopeful ending to the movie provides a striking contrast to the misery that preceded it. Shadows and Fog is a calming tonic for our worrisome predilections.
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