Red is Brazen
White is Love
And Black is death.”–anonymous
In Stargher’s world, Carl, (the boy manifestation of the man) is dressed in a red and white shirt and blue jeans, the innocent side of Carl Stargher. Later, when we, along with Catherine, witness the abuse first hand, he wears a green and white shirt signifying that he is vulnerable and feels forsaken, or denied of love. Catherine is almost never dressed in anything but white, brown and shades of grey and blue. She is the nurturing character, representing healing, love, and truth. She altars from this only when she is pulled deep into Stargher’s world and allows herself to lose control of the situation.
At this point in the film he dresses her in red and black. By taking her out of her white clothing, he separates her from his victims who he bleaches until they are white like porcelain dolls. He shows that he feels a form of power that she exerts over him. For a time during the climax, Catherine is even dressed in a black, red and gold warrior costume as she inflicts upon Stargher Christ like wounds with a cross bow and her sword. But she does not prevail here. In fact, she cannot bring herself to kill Stargher this way. She instead reverts to the Red and white gown of the Madonna, a Virgin Mary-like figure, to ease Carl’s pain. The red indicates, in this instance, the power that Catherine feels in her self, by not becoming like Stargher. The white of the gown showing her love for the boy within Carl, showing that she does care and that she does wish to heal the pain that he has suffered. All of this is a message that Carl needed to hear, and the kind of person that Carl Stargher had been missing in his life since his birth.
It is no accident, either that all of the police ‘suits’ are dressed in shades of blue and grey with the exception of Peter Novak, who, until the final scenes of the film, is continually dressed in Brown and yellow, with only a white undershirt hidden beneath. Peter Novak’s character is driven by an obsession to save. He cares nothing for anyone else in the film but the salvation of Carl’s last victim. In truth, what Peter is trying to save is himself. He is acting out the hero that he did not have as a child when suffering his own abuse, and trying to save himself from the insanity of thinking that one of his cases as a DA did not die because of him, that it was not his fault. He confesses most of this to Catherine by the fountain, though the realization of his own salvation does not come until much later when he sees Catherine as something greater than just a child psychiatrist. Because she helps him to do what no one else willing does, which is find the girl.
There is a deleted scene that can only be viewed on the DVD. In that scene Peter talks with his partner Ramsey who relays to him that they got the bad guy, and he can’t kill anyone else, ever. He feels that this is enough heroism for them and wants to go home and kiss his wife and feel like he did a good job. The scene was deleted for time constraint and pacing reasons, but should have been left in to show Peter’s obsession. Getting the bad guys is not enough, he must save the victim as well. Catherine helps him do this, and by doing that helps Peter to heal inside. The evidence of his personal healing is seen in the final scene with Peter. He is wearing a white shirt and blue pants, showing that he has made a transition into a healthier person from one who needs healing and is in a sense jealous of the other police for their ability to be apathetic, and jealous of Catherine’s ability to care.
Birds appear throughout the film. A seagull leads Catherine to Mr. E. A vulture accompanies Stargher as he tortures Peter Novak. Three humanesque birds, mouths open to beg for nourishment serve as a guide deeper into Stargher's mind. Catherine’s world has a pure white peacock. Darker references to birds are made as well. Stargher’s mother is portrayed with a similarity to a black bird. Carl’s basement is filled with dolls, some of which have bird’s skulls for heads. Stargher’s more terrifying manifestations are marked with a spread wing bird on his forehead made from scales, rhinestones, or scab-like skin. Catherine, too, as mentioned earlier, dresses in a white gown the bodice of which is made of feathers.
By bringing the character’s mutual weaknesses to light, Singh makes their common traits more notable. Each has an obsession in some form, and until they can bring that obsession to rest, none of the three can truly be healed. Peter Novak’s obsession to be saved vicariously through those he saves, and Catherine’s need to do the same parallel Carl Stargher’s need to be saved from his own haunting childhood trauma and from himself.
So much more could be stated in regard to the layers upon layers of visual symbolism that Tansem Singh so expertly painted upon celluloid, but to do so would takes many more pages. The three main symbols, the water, the colors and the birds, are visual feasts of pain, healing and mutual understanding. They serve as Singh’s map, a form of yellow brick road to lead the audience to the understanding of his misunderstood villain, Carl Stargher. He does not at any point condone Stargher’s actions, but does through illustration make us see how a man could come to a point of doing the things that he had done. While each character suffers in their own way and chose their own path, we find that they are not too different. Peter, Catherine and Carl are all seeking someone who will listen, love and respond to them in some way. Tarsem Singh, although highly criticized upon the film’s release for creating a feature length music video, understands better than most directors the need for extreme lighting, visualization and characterization to prove a very unpalatable point.
Added Notation(explained in footnote):
The horse is a very poignant symbol within the story as well. It represents guidance. Catherine rides a horse which takes her to Mr. E in the beginning. The live horse then becomes a chess piece or a statuette. This reference to chess, in which the Knight (most often denoted as a horse) has a limited range of movement, and of course, only one turn at a time. The solidity of that horse then indicates that Catherine has come as far as she will be allowed by Mr. E. Her turn is over.
Later the horse trapped in Stargher's clock-room shows an acknowledgement on Carl's part, if only on this subconscious level that Catherine has only so much time to "dissect" him. That the horse is still alive while dissected is a creative allegory for exactly what Catherine is doing...taking him apart while he still lives. The forcefulness with which the dissection takes place and young Carl's need to save Catherine from the glass blades is an indication of the danger she is facing in doing this, and a comment on the invasiveness of her presence and intentions.
This essay is admittedly a few years old. I was reminded of it by a recent conversation and posted it to direct that person to a more articulated explanation of some of my points regarding this film. The notes regarding the symbolism of the horses were added to help flesh out the conversation which was recently held.
I hope I have not bored too many of you.