There are no homicidal maniacs on the loose, nonetheless, Todd Haynes’ Safe is a truly terrifying film. The horror comes from what at first appears normal and familiar—life in the suburbs. ‘Typical life’ gives way to a self-inflicted, existential crisis that just might hit a little too close to home for some viewers.

Julianne Moore stars as Carol Moore, an affluent wife and stepmother living in the San Fernando Valley. Her life is a routine of aerobics classes, gardening, manicures, and lunches. Her elegant appearance appears to be front, as everyday pleasures no longer mean much to her. Sex with her husband Greg (Xander Berkeley), and her friendships are unfulfilling. Carol’s maid largely ignores her, and she has no real relationship with her stepson. One day, Carol finds herself feeling sick. It starts with a little fatigue and a cough. Then she develops a rash… a nosebleed…a seizure…and it only gets worse. She eventually goes to a doctor, but he can find nothing wrong with her. Following her doctor’s advice, she goes to a psychiatrist, but he just makes her nervous. The only possible “answers” she receives are offered by the Wrenwood Center, a “New Age” commune run by a flamboyant (and very wealthy) leader named Peter Dunning (Peter Friedman), who has AIDS. Dunning founded the center on the principle that disease arises from a core emotional deficiency, and only through difficult self-reflection can we truly be cured of anything. Claire (Kate McGregor-Stewart), the program director, is the only person able to physically touch Carol without making her vomit.

Slow and hypnotic, things get stranger as the story progresses. While Peter Dunning talks about changing his inner world to make the external world a better place, what he’s really doing is shutting out the outside world. This is best expressed when he says, he stopped reading the paper because he didn’t want to face the negativity. This from the same man that claims only difficult self-reflection can cure the mind and body of illness.

While Haynes takes a swipe at self-serving gurus, and wants us to be skeptical of wealthy trophy wives like Carol, he also makes it impossible not to have sympathy for her. She is so frail and, as played by Moore, seems to shrink before our eyes. Her voice, just above a whisper, rises just slightly at the end of each sentence making everything she says sound like a question. She carries herself with a slight hunch, and seems to be engulfed by her clothes. Her eyes are blank canvases.

The film itself is very still. Camera movement is minimal. Numerous shots serve to isolate Carol and her insignificance. In a telling shot early on, Carol enters her house in a wide shot, and move toward the camera. As she gets closer, the camera tracks backwards, not allowing her to get to close. Much like her real life, she not allowed to explore the inner workings of what’s happening. Ultimately, there’s little left to say when it comes to Carol’s empty existence, but Moore’s performance makes you care. She is sympathetic, and believable from the start. It’s no wonder she has since come to be regarded as one of the most talented actresses working today.

Presented in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio, this 1080p transfer was struck from a new 4K restoration overseen by Haynes, which cleaned up the image wonderfully. While colors can be a bit dull, particularly during darker scenes, the look is largely appropriate. Contrast is even throughout, and the level of detail is high. Grain is consistent, and the image crisp with solid black levels.

The LPCM 1.0 audio track is clean and steady. While dynamics are somewhat limited, that’s okay, given the lack of strenuous effects. At the same time, Ed Tomney’s outstanding score sounds surprisingly full. The dialogue is clear, and easy to follow. There are no pops, cracks, hisses, audio dropouts, or digital distortions to mention.

English SDH subtitles are included.

The following extras are available:

  • Commentary with Director Todd Haynes, Actress Julianne Moore, and Producer Christine Vachon: Ported over from the 2001 Criterion DVD release, this screen specific discussion touches on areas such as the story, the cast, and the production. Julianne Moore provides the most interesting tidbits, providing insight into how she developed her character.
  • Todd Haynes and Julianne Moore (HD, 36:10) Filmed exclusively for Criterion in 2014, director Todd Haynes and actress Julianne Moore reminisce about how the first met, and discuss the script for Safe, the casting process, and its unusual outlook, symbolism, critical reaction, and more.
  • The Suicide (1978) (HD, 20:30) Todd Haynes’ first short film, The Suicide, initially thought lost. The transfer was struck from a print recently found by producer Michael Quinn Martin. The film follows a mentally ill boy feeling lost in a suburban middle school.
  • Christine Vachon (HD, 15:54) Filmed exclusively for Criterion in 2014, Vachon discusses her working relationship with Todd Haynes.
  • Trailer (HD, 1:19) Original Sony Pictures Classics trailer for Safe.
  • Leaflet: Illustrated leaflet featuring Dennis Lim’s essay “Nowhere to Hide.”