The furor that greeted the news that director Gus Van Sant was planning a shot-by-shot remake of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) exemplifies a tempest in a teapot. In Hollywood, where very little is sacrosanct, the remaking of movies is routine. And, as a medium, film has always fed upon itself.
But what really piqued the media and diehard cineastes alike is which film was being remade. Psycho exists as more than the seminal slasher movie: It has crossed over to become an American cultural artifact. Really, who hasn't been a little nervous taking a shower since a wigged-out Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) took a carving knife to Marion Crane (Janet Leigh)?
Perhaps the oddest factor in all the brouhaha surrounding Psycho is that Gus Van Sant (Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho, To Die For, Good Will Hunting) is anything but a disciple of Hitchcock. His best films have an emotional fluidity, a bruised tenderness and a sense of life's inherent sloppiness that Hitchcock rarely allowed to muss his careful compositions.
The good news is that Van Sant's Psycho is as vibrant and expressive as the color cinematography of Chris Doyle (Chungking Express). "Shot-by-shot remake" is actually a misnomer: What Van Sant has achieved is a reverential reinterpretation. While utilizing Joseph Stefano's original script, and restaging many of Hitchcock's signature shots, Van Sant gets right to the emotional heart of Psycho, which Norman (Vince Vaughn) sums up to Marion (Anne Heche) while they sit in the parlor of the Bates Motel, surrounded by the grotesque beauty of his taxidermically stuffed birds. "We're all in our private traps, clamped in them," he tells her, "and none of us can ever get out."
Marion -- as well as Hitchcock -- takes this statement literally: Norman's supposedly stuck maintaining an out-of-the-way motel and caring for an aged, mentally unstable mother, while Marion has just embezzled $400,000, left a painfully obvious bread-crumb trail of clues while fleeing toward her down-at-the-heels boyfriend Sam (Viggo Mortensen) and fantasizing about escaping to a secluded island.
Van Sant finds "private traps" for everyone involved, from ineffectual, faded cowboy-hardware salesman Sam, to Marion's ballsy sister Lila (Julianne Moore) -- whose ever-present Walkman tunes out the pesky outside world -- to private detective Arbogast (William H. Macy), who's so confident of his wiliness that he can't see the deadly determination beneath Norman's boyish facade.
There was a formality -- even rigidity -- to many of the actors' performances in Hitchcock's Psycho, but all that is gone here. Anne Heche, in particular, is immensely expressive, with emotions rippling across her face. Vince Vaughn effectively captures the slippery nuances that make up Norman Bates, but he can't help not being as memorable as Anthony Perkins. That was a rare case of an actor fusing with a role in such a way that the creation haunts our collective psyche.
Overall, Van Sant avoids camp or arch line readings, and uses the magnificent neo-retro costume design of Beatrix Aruna Pasztor to help define the characters' conflicted desires. This Psycho reflects a society more at ease with sexual expression, yet so little has been altered from the original that odd anachronisms appear -- bucket seats and cell phones don't exist in this insular world.
But Van Sant's choice to not update the summation given by the psychiatrist (Robert Forester) will make this version seem strangely dated to contemporary audiences unfamiliar with the original. After all, psychobabble has become public discourse in the intervening years, and the mother-possession explanation seems even more of a cop-out today.
By its very nature, the inherent value of Gus Van Sant's Psycho will be put into question more than that of most films. But remember, three sequels to Psycho already exist, none of them nearly as good as this film.
When critics screamed "Why?" Van Sant coolly replied "Why not?" It doesn't seem like such a crazy answer now.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at email@example.com.