Before I begin waxing poetic, can I just say something real quick? For a movie that debuted before an audience of only 25 people back in 1977, Eraserhead is a comically daunting film to review. David Lynch’s premier feature-length film has the ability to really make one feel under-qualified as a critic. But I suppose if Jeremy Jahns can make a living from giving his insipid opinions on the internet, why can’t I? So let’s jump in, shall we?
The most important thing to know going into Eraserhead is that this is NOT a movie for casual viewing. This isn’t Jack Sparrow’s latest romp in the Caribbean that you can just turn on halfway, watch for 20 minutes, then go jerk off and fall sleep. This movie demands cerebral vigilance. And not in the way a high-concept action flick like Inception does. Think more along the lines of Polanski’s Repulsion or Bergman’s Persona. (complete with matching black-and-white aesthetic choice) So be prepared to set the phone down and save the popcorn for a movie where the stars wear capes.
On the most superficial level, Eraserhead simply tells the story of a man struggling with the notions of parenthood and settling down, but no summarized plot description can truly capture the film’s delightful horror. What begins as a general confusion and a couple uneasy laughs steadily ramps up to a full-on assault on the psyche. Lynch and his crew’s tumultuous five years of production culminated into an exemplar of deliberate film making. This is a movie whose every intention is to make its audience deeply uncomfortable and is capable of striking genuine awe and horror.
A large part of what makes Eraserhead mystifying is its utilization of the b/w visual style. The urban-industrial world the film is set in is bleak and isolating. Stark contrasts of spotlights and shadows paint a nightmarish landscape for protagonist Henry to live in.
Camera and editing work is excellent; nothing ever feels flat or stale despite the minimalist sets, and the surrealism is engrossing without being overbearing. Better yet is the film’s sound design. In addition to “Fats” Waller organ playing, Eraserhead’s phenomenally wretched noises (as well as the consistent white noise) will make your skin crawl with Lynchian dread. I never before would have imagined that puppies suckling at their mother’s nipples could make me fidget in my seat.
These kinds of subconscious physical responses aren’t commonplace in film. During a particularly mortifying sequence in which Henry must interact with one of the most disturbing props in cinematic history, I found my hands on top of my head, fingers gripping hair as I continued to watch wide-eyed and incapable of looking away. There are things in this movie that are haunting, and others that will make you question how you’ll go on living.
Editing together a bunch of weird visuals, while potentially thought-provoking, does not naturally equate to a great movie. Fortunately, the performances in Eraserhead are excellent all around. They really had to be considering the script rarely resembles natural dialogue or even human interaction. Lead actor Jack Nance’s portrayal of the confused, anxious Henry – our avatar through the 90 minute descent into madness – is as perfect as his iconic pompadour. This man is the Eraserhead.
The credit reveals that everyone in the film has a name, but these are not characters in the classical sense of the word. The rogue’s gallery of peculiar individuals, including Henry despite his protagonist status, all represent larger ideas – symbolic and thematic elements for viewer interpretation. As well as showcasing phenomenal acting prowess, this ambiguity ends up being one of Eraserhead’s best qualities. The surreal nature lends itself well to further individual meditation even after the credits, and in a way that is far more compelling than the mentally-fatiguing Persona.
Though I might need some time before I subject myself to a second round with Lynch’s masterwork, I can’t recommend a first-time viewing enough. The only critique I have to give is that it’s a little dry at the beginning when Henry is just walking around for 5 minutes. But, once he reaches his destination, the terrifying roller coaster plummets down the tracks.
If it’s been too long since you’ve seen a good feel-bad movie, or if Ghostbusters (2016) gender politics are getting you down, Eraserhead is the panacea to all your modern Hollywood woes. This is the kind of movie that should be experienced by anyone who considers themselves a fan of film or filmmaking. Maybe not everyone’s cup of tea, but who needs them? Eraserhead is an astonishing, captivating, and unforgettable work of American cinema too impressive to ignore.
Obligatory Number at the End: 10/10