by Alvin G. Burstein
With conventional movie theatres still COVID risky, and
having subscribed to a new dish based media provider, I have
a plethora of movie options. A horror flick based on a Stephen
King story and starring Johnny Depp tempted me, despite its
age—it is a 2004 release—and it turned out to be rife with
interesting psychological implications.
Spoiler alert: Facilitating the exploration of those implications
will involve reducing the suspense for the first time viewer, but
then, the film has been around a while, and its implications
reward reflecting on.
The protagonist, played by Depp, is an established writer,
Mort Rainey. He has an agent and has appeared in the iconic
Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. The film opens with a
flashback of his discovery of his wife in flagrante delicto with a
friend. The movie then fast-forwards six months to show
Rainey having left his erring wife in possession of their
connubial home. He is living in a backwoods shack,
manifestly depressed by his impending divorce, wearing a
tattered bathrobe, disheveled and unshaven, unsuccessfully
struggling with writer’s block.
The picture of depression is classic, and its links to oral
conflicts and ambivalence unmistakable. Rainey gorges on
junk food, swills booze out of a bottle, and has fallen off his
no-smoking wagon. Ambivalence is highlighted, and not as a
nice, if inaccurate, term for negative feelings. Rainey misses
his wife and continues to yearn for her at the very same time,
very same moment, that he is enraged by her betrayal. The
quasi-solution to the conflict is redirecting that murderous
anger away from her and towards himself, the basis for his
As the story unfolds, Rainey is confronted by an amateur
writer, John Shooter, who accuses Rainey of having
plagiarized a novel written by Shooter. Rainey attempts to
brush off his claim, pointing out that his story was published in
EQMM years before Shooter claims to have written his story.
Undeterred, Shooter gives Rainey three days in which to
produce a copy of the magazine containing the original, making
ominous threats that resonate with his name, and with his grim
appearance that includes wearing a broad-brimmed black hat.
Along with his eponymous last name, the black hat is another
heavy-handed hint of impending evil. Good guys wear white
hats, and bad guys….
Unsettled by Shooter’s threats, and more so by the discovery
of his pet dog’s mutilation and murder, Rainey appeals to the
local sheriff and later to a private detective for protection.
Rainey goes to his wife’s home to attempt to find a copy of the
magazine in question, only to find the house destroyed by
arson. The plot continues to darken, Rainey’s private detective,
along with a witness to the Rainey-Shooter confrontation are
found dead, and like the pet dog, mutilated. Rainey receives a
copy of the magazine in question from his agent, whom the P.I.
had contacted, but the critical pages have been cut out.
The crisis mounts. Rainey is back at his shack staring at
Shooter’s hat and begins talking to himself, trying to make
sense of these events. In another heavy-handed development,
there are soon three Rainey’s exchanging views. One of them
puts on Shooter’s hat and—here is the spoiler—it becomes
clear that Rainey suffers from what the psychiatric Diagnostic
and Statistical Manual would call dissociative identity disorder,
and what psychoanalytic theorists would call vertical splitting,
disowned identities. Rainey is also Shooter, Jekyll meeting
Hyde as it were.
In the windup, Rainey’s estranged wife appears, along with her
lover. Rainey, now owning his anger, kills both and buries them
in the field that the secret window overlooks, planting a
cornfield over their graves.
Months later, the sheriff visits a rejuvenated Rainey to remind
him that that he is still a suspect. Rainey grins as he continues
to dine on corn on the cob.
The light-hearted mockery of the ending is a tip of the hat, a
signal not to take the story too seriously. But its highlighting of
psychological issues is both striking and of interest.