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Caveman's Valentine, The Print E-mail
Tuesday, 17 July 2001

The Caveman's Valentine

Universal Home Video
MPAA rating: R
starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Colm Feore, Ann Magnuson, Damir Andrei, Aunjanue Ellis, Tamara Tunie, Peter MacNeill, Joy Rodan
release year: 2001
film rating: Four stars
reviewed by: Bill Warren

Good murder mysteries that play fair with the audience and yet manage to pull the wool over everyone's collective eyes are common in books, but extremely rare on screen. Few writers and/or directors seem to understand how to layer in clues, how to provide plausible suspects, and how to steer our attention away from the truth.

But with "The Caveman's Valentine," not only do director Kasi Lemmons and writer George Dawes Green (working from his own Edgar Award-winning novel) smoothly and entertainingly meet this challenge, but they present us with a fascinating and unusual "detective."

Romulus Ledbetter (Samuel L. Jackson) was a promising composer and musician -- but that was years ago. Now schizophrenic, he lives in a cave in a Manhattan park; he wanders the streets of New York, ranting and raving about Cornelius Stuyvesant, the evil genius he's convinced is living in the top of the Chrysler Building. Ledbetter's tortured mind swims with "moth seraphs," tiny winged men who influence and mirror his thoughts. From time to time, he's visited -- in his fractured imagination -- by his ex-wife Sheila (Tamara Tunie), who addresses him as the sardonic voice of reason. He's a depressing embarrassment to his daughter Lulu (Aunjanue Ellis), a police officer; he's a colorful character to those he passes. And he seems about as lost as a soul can get, even though flashes of his wit and intelligence show through even the most paranoid of his rants.

One snowy morning, in a tree outside his cave, Ledbetter finds the frozen body of Scotty, a young homeless man he knew slightly. Matthew (Rodney Eastman), another young man without a home, loved Scotty, and swears to Romulus that he was murdered by famous artist David Leppenraub (Colm Feore) -- you can read "Robert Mapplethorpe" if you like. Leppenraub is known for his dark but rapturous photographs of naked young men costumed as angels. (Rather like those "moth seraphs" in Romulus' head.)

Neither his daughter Lulu nor anyone else connected with the police believes Romulus' semi-coherent claims that Leppenraub is a murderer. So Ledbetter gathers what's left of his wits, approaches Bob (Anthony Michael Hall), a wealthy yuppie lawyer who's fascinated by Romulus, and manages to go to a party thrown by Leppenraub at his country estate. Romulus Ledbetter has to force his insanity to one side, and to figure out a way to bring Scotty's murderer to justice.

Handsomely photographed in dark wintry tones by Amelia Vincent, who also shot Kasi Lemmons' debut feature, "Eve's Bayou," "The Caveman's Valentine" has an unusually open, expansive feel, even in the interiors. Technically, the film is first rate. The sound is especially good, including in this handsome DVD. The sound is very naturalistic and precise; see chapter 9, for example -- you can practically hear individual ice crystals crushing under Ledbetter's feet.

Many reviews of "The Caveman's Valentine" (so called because the body is found on February 14th) were surprisingly negative; critics seemed annoyed that no explanation for Ledbetter's mental condition is ever offered -- but he's probably a paranoid schizophrenic, and there's almost never any obvious reason why someone tumbles into that particular mental abyss.

The point of the movie is not how Romulus got this way, but how he is going to solve the serious problem he's been presented with. He has to turn detective, even though the misfiring synapses in his brain keep going off like skyrockets while he's trying so hard to help the forlornly victimized Scotty. The plot turns out to be far more intricate -- and more clever -- than it at first seems to be, and Ledbetter finds himself, and his daughter, in genuine danger.

Samuel L. Jackson never seems to set a foot wrong in whatever role he plays. His trademark is a kind of smoldering anger, very male, sometimes (but not always) very black, but he always layers in complexity, often mixing in wit, a sardonic outlook, and intelligence. The role of Romulus Ledbetter is probably the most complex he's ever tackled; it's not enough to see Romulus as an insane man, even one who's trying to solve a murder -- we have to see the fragments of sanity reflected in this shattered mirror. Jackson particularizes Romulus Ledbetter, makes him as real as any character he's played, while still allowing him to be the flamboyantly colorful character Green created.

He's huge and bear-like here, with two-foot dreadlocks encircling his head. Lemmons loves those long locks of hair; they seem like extensions of the convolutions of Rom's crippled brain, and sometimes even more than that, as in the unexpected sex scene between Jackson and Ann Magnuson (playing Leppenraub's sister). He also simply removes the anger from his nature; Ledbetter is a gentle soul, often cheerful even when he's tortured emotionally.

Stylistically, the movie is a bit over the top; it's okay that we share some of Romulus' hallucinations, as when colored beams stab out from the tower of the Chrysler Building. But I don't think anything was gained by showing us those moth seraphs; perhaps they had a different function in the novel. One of the additonal deleted scenes is an endless sequence of just the moth seraphs alone; they don't look any better when we can see them longer.

These deleted scenes were clearly removed not long before release, as they're completely scored, timed and edited -- but it's also easy to see why they were removed. Though interesting, they don't really add anything to the plot; this film is otherwise well-structured enough that each scene advances the story or illuminates the characters. One difficulty is that the scenes are presented baldly, with no explanation as to where they occurred in the film.

There's a commentary track by Kasi Lemmons and editory Terilyn Shropshire. It's adequate enough as these things go, but not all that illuminating; it might have been better to have Lemmons and Jackson do the commentary track. As it is, the track has a perfunctory feel; neither Lemmons nor Shropshire seem very engaged in their task.

Even if we never get to understand why Romulus is the way he is, Jackson makes him fascinating, funny, scary and sympathetic throughout. At the very end, there's the slightest hint that things might be a little better for him in the future, but that's not the point of the story. Even though "The Caveman's Valentine" is primarily a murder mystery, and a very good one, without being pretentious, it's also about human dignity. We can find Romulus amusing at times, but we also always, always recognize him as a human being struggling to overcome obstacles he doesn't entirely understand. And that's a good metaphor for the human condition.

more details
sound format:
Dolby digital 5.1
aspect ratio(s):
special features: commentary track, deleted scenes, production notes, trailer
comments: email us here...
reference system
DVD player: Kenwood DV-403
receiver: Kenwood VR-407
main speakers: Paradigm Atom
center speaker: Paradigm CC-170
rear speakers: Paradigm ADP-70
subwoofer: Paradigm PDR-10
monitor: 36-inch Sony XBR

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