Samuel L. Jackson has paraded some dramatic tonsorial concepts in his career, but none quite so magnificent as the waist-length, salt-and-pepper dreadlocks he maintains in The Caveman’s Valentine. His are the proud tresses of a royal Caribbean personage, or maybe a funkadelic rock & roll god, but in Kasi Lemmons’ roiling, neo-Gothic thriller, they belong to a paranoid schizophrenic named Romulus Ledbetter — called Caveman by locals because he makes his home in a cave in New York City’s Central Park. Ledbetter is a Juilliard-trained classical musician who once lived with his beautiful wife and adoring daughter; he still has moments of musical genius in him. But now he’s a haunted outsider whose recurrent delusion is that the world is controlled by an omnipotent power with the all-purpose robber-baron name of Cornelius Gould Stuyvesant. Burrowed in his homemade home, surrounded by scraps and talismans, Caveman rails at omens of Stuyvesant’s destructive designs he appears to be watching on a TV screen — one whose cables and wires are unstrung, like his mind.
As such, of course, he’s not the most trustworthy amateur detective in the neighborhood: Although he offers his help to cops investigating the death of a young male drifter found frozen in a tree outside Ledbetter’s cave, even his daughter (Men of Honor’s Aunjanue Ellis), all grown up and now a cop herself, isn’t likely to believe her father is an intuitive and gifted tracker of clues.
Like the ropes of grizzled hair Jackson swings so commandingly, like the finely chosen rags he wears and the doves-and-gargoyles imagery of his hallucinations, Caveman’s Valentine — based on the cult-attracting, 1994 Edgar Award-winning novel of the same name by George Dawes Green — is both jumbled and refined, arty and cloudy. This is the second feature film from the gifted director of the superior 1997 indie Eve’s Bayou (in which Jackson also starred), and the filmmaker’s preference for expressive, fluid, nocturnal, operatically ”feminine” imagery is emerging as her artistic signature.
It’s a style — admirably high-flying and experimental as it is — that in Valentine overwhelms what is already a precariously balanced construction of fantasy and reality, especially as Ledbetter begins to mix with ”sane” highbrow society. At the impossibly swank Manhattan aerie of a rich businessman (Anthony Michael Hall), and more crucially at the impossibly arty country home of a celebrated photographer (City of Angels’ Colm Feore) who used the dead young man as a model, the Gothic whoosh of Lemmons’ moviemaking, plus the concert-worthy score by Terence Blanchard, plus the intense performance by Jackson tend to neutralize one another.
And yet, there is pleasure in giving oneself up to the gusty swirls of the film’s imagery, and especially to the handsome grandeur of its star, who, whether bundled in shreds and tatters or, in one surprising erotic scene, naked, personifies even a madman’s inalienable right to dignity and a stylish cut.