The mystery genre is at once safely predictable and ambitiously subversive because within its familiar structure lie infinite opportunities for mutation. In The Caveman’s Valentine, screenwriter George Dawes Green (who adapted his own Edgar-winning novel) has followed the conventional structure of a mystery, but made the avatar of justice the ranting Romulus Ledbetter (Samuel L. Jackson), whose grip on reality is usually tenuous at best. Known to other street people as the Caveman because of his unusual park domicile, Romulus awakens on February 14 to the startling sight of a frozen young man perched in a tree.
The primary murder suspect is celebrated photographer David Leppenraub (Colm Feore), whose quasi-religious imagery fetishizes pain. The official law — including Ledbetter’s grown daughter Lulu (Aunjanue Ellis), a beat cop — can’t touch the famous Leppenraub, so the Caveman must revert to his former life as a concert pianist to infiltrate the exclusive rural enclave of the aloof artist and his enigmatic sister, Moira (Ann Magnuson).
Director Kasi Lemmons (Eve’s Bayou) makes the radical suggestion that Ledbetter (the specifics of his “craziness” are left tantalizingly oblique) can understand and operate on all levels of New York society — thereby functioning as an effective detective where more conventional sleuths fail — because of his bizarre inner life. Both blessed and cursed by visions, he exists primarily in a shadow realm guarded by moth seraphs (which Lemmons visualizes as winged Alvin Ailey dancers). Here, in the sanctity of his mind, Ledbetter’s haunting music (a superb modern classical score by Terence Blanchard) is given full flower.
The Caveman’s Valentine is often fascinating and marvelously ambitious, but Lemmons can’t quite pull all the disparate elements together. When she focuses on the external mystery, the film becomes disappointingly conventional. There’s a greater mystery here — that of Ledbetter’s tortured soul — and Samuel L. Jackson offers enough peeks inside that complex psyche to show why the craziness of the outside world just can’t touch him.
E-mail Serena Donadoni at email@example.com.