The Caveman’s Valentine opens with a series of hard-to-read images, as if the darkness on screen has come alive, filled with fluttering wings and pounding heartbeats. As the image finally comes into focus, you find yourself being stared at hard by the ever-intimidating face of Samuel L. Jackson: “Don’t you watch me!” he roars. And for an instant, you might think better of what you’re about to do.
Jackson’s character, the paranoid schizophrenic Romulus Ledbetter, is known around New York City streets as the Caveman, because he lives in a cave in a park. At that daunting moment when you first see him, Rom is actually not yelling at you, but at a timid social worker, whom he distrusts on principle. But throughout the film, Rom is trying to beat back the demons that populate his own skull. As ferocious as he seems to you, he’s haunted by demons far more ferocious, beset by nightmares he can’t identify. Now dreadlocked, glowering, and looming—and when Jackson looms, you know he’s looming—he was once a piano prodigy and teacher at Julliard. But it’s been years since his wife Sheila (Tamara Tunie) kicked him out of the house, and though he understands his plight, he can’t go back, no matter how much he misses his former life.
Rom isn’t exactly a reliable narrator, but the film makes this unreliability its focus, taking you inside his skull, so you can see what he sees. He keeps a television in his cave, on which he sees projected a series of “messages” directed at him by evil (corporate) forces. Romulus’s collective name for these forces is “Stuyvesant,” and he imagines they shoot devastating, puke-green z-rays at him from the Chrysler Building. One morning, Rom wakes to find a frozen corpse in a tree just outside his cave. Believing that this street kid, Scotty (Sean MacMahon), has been murdered by “Stuyvesant” as yet another message to him, Rom heads off to the payphone down the street to call Lulu (Aunjanue Ellis), who happens to be a cop. She answers wearily, roused from sleep—they’ve been through something like this before—but soon after, she arrives on the scene with a skeptical white detective in tow. As Rom spits his theory of the crime, she’s so frustrated and saddened by his ravings that she tries to hide the fact that they’re even related.
Intriguingly, The Caveman’s Valentine asks you to sympathize with a difficult character, and simultaneously to understand, from Lulu’s perspective, what makes him, frankly, unsympathetic. But as the film turns more complicated and less coherent, it has trouble balancing its thrilling plunges into Romulus’s skull (where you see the muscular black male angels that so unhinge him but also charge him up) and its efforts to show you how other characters respond to his lurching about. The swing character here is Sheila—she stands outside his skull, but she is wholly a figment of his need and desire, appearing to him sporadically, to offer advice and encouragement. But while he’s talking to her, everything and everyone else has to stop, and this makes for some awkward pacing.
In part, the movie’s unsettled structure has to do with Rom’s own problems with keeping things straight. His skewed perspective comes across in Rom’s scenes with his reluctant benefactor, a rich, self-confident bankruptcy lawyer named Bob (Anthony Michael Hall). When Rom asks the guy for a suit of clothes, Bob tests his musical skills, then says okay, even inviting him into his super-nice apartment to meet the wife, Betty (Kate McNeil) and enjoy a lime rickey (and when you see the neon color of these drinks, you might wonder just whose perspective is skewed here). Rom and Bob achieve a kind of comedy routine rhythm, as each speaks past and around the other, then behaves, out of politeness, as if everything’s just peachy. Rom’s own frustrations with the niceties of social interactions are almost palpable here. But the most moving image in the Bob and Betty world involves Betty, who warms up to her unusual houseguest, helping him shave his beard and shampoo his formidable dreads.
As such cross-cultural change-ups suggest, the film—written by George Dawes Green, based on his 1994 Edgar Award-winning detective novel, and tweaked by Lemmons—is only superficially a murder mystery. And on that level, it lacks narrative and logistical sense: Rom implausibly moves between locations apparently many miles apart, without visible, or even imaginable, means of transportation, while tracking down world-famous avant-garde photographer David Leppenraub (Colm Feore), whom he suspects of torture, murder, and general sexual nastiness. Scheming his way into Leppenraub’s Long Island home (by unconvincingly pretending he’s sane enough to have written a piano piece in the photographer’s honor), Rom meets Moira Leppenraub (Ann Magnuson), David’s sister and an artist herself. She and Romulus share a certain disregard for commercial interests (though she is clearly wealthy and used to privilege), as well as a taste for life on the fringe. Briefly, their liaison helps Rom to recognize himself again.
But the father-daughter relationship—at once connected and disconnected—is the film’s most tenuous, crucial, and potentially terrifying, much as it was in Lemmons’ first feature, Eve’s Bayou (where Jackson also played an all-powerful and all-fallible father). When the rest—the murder mystery, the questions about art and obscenity, the by-definition corrupt class system—starts to feel distracting, the movie flounders. Elegantly shot by cinematographer Amelia Vincent and effectively scored by Terence Blanchard, The Caveman’s Valentine has much to offer, even aside from Jackson’s lauded powerhouse performance. Despite and sometimes because of its unevenness, the film conveys the delusions of daily existence with fierce poetry.