What role do scars and burns play in “After Hours”?


After Hours (1985) has been described as following dream logic. It’s a tense, suspense-building comedy that wraps itself in many genres at once, telling the story of Paul (Griffin Dunne), a man who just wants to go home. Most of the film exists as what seems to be a projection of the main character’s anxiety. He experiences a series of events so improbable, so otherworldly, it’s clear that the evening has to be a combination of reality and Paul’s own mind playing tricks on him. He’s an unreliable narrator, and as the viewer we’re forced to endure the evening from his perspective.

When Paul first arrives at the apartment in SoHo, he’s greeted by a woman named Kiki (Linda Fiorentino). She’s an artist, and the two get to talking about burns and scars. Kiki makes a random comment about how some people are completely covered with scars, head to toe, and Paul assumes she’s referring to Marcie (Rosanna Arquette), the woman he actually came there to meet. He shares a story about wandering through a burn ward as a child, blindfolded, traumatized by what he saw when he peeked at his surroundings. Naturally, when Marcie returns from the all-night drug store where she’s been, Paul is curious. That curiosity compounds when he gets in the shower, he snoops through her things, and finds she went to the store for burn cream.

Paul comes to Marcy’s apartment hoping to get lucky. He’s sexually burning, but all these signals about scarring cause him to get anxious. He sees something on her thigh that looks like scratches, and subtext implies he’s wondering what else she is hiding. Scars come with a story—one that is usually hidden. Paul wonders what Marcie is hiding from him.

Later, Paul finds a book about burn victims and reconstructive wound therapy mere seconds before Marcie enters the room holding a candle, expressing sexual interest. By this point, Paul is terrified of what he might discover on her and weasels his way out of the apartment. His insecurity and discomfort with the situation have gotten the better of him.

When Marcie kills herself later that evening, Paul investigates the body to find flawless skin, and a tattoo where he previously saw scratches. Dream logic, anxiety, projection, manifestation—all reveal they’re at play in Paul’s interpretation of the evening with that discovery. Was he only seeing scratches because he and Kiki talked about scars? Did he act terribly toward Marcie based on circumstance and assumption?

Near the end of the film, Paul meets June (Verna Bloom), another artist who ends up saving him from his awful night in SoHo. Her back is burned, but by this point he doesn’t care. There’s irony in the story—Paul initially rejects Marcie relative to burns and secrets he wasn’t sure even existed, only to seek refuge through June’s help hours later despite those same qualities being obvious.

It’s even possible Marcie was picking up the cream for June. Kiki is revealed to be a regular at the club where June lives, the two created the same type of art, and it’s possible Marcie and Kiki aren’t even two separate people but variations of Paul’s desires and interpretations of the woman he met. The only time they ever share a scene, one of them is asleep.

Ultimately the scars serve as a nod to the film’s construction, as well as the wounded characters involved. It’s a metaphoric darkness No Ripcord describes, saying, “Scorsese converts SoHo into a lurid, claustrophobic landscape capable of eliciting Paul’s innermost fears and anxieties. This feature is manifested in the film’s repeated reminders of Paul’s trepidation towards fire: evidenced in his sudden remembrance of a childhood memory involving a burn ward, the images in Marcy’s textbook, his squeamish reaction to her possession of ointment for second-degree burns, her story of a rapist breaking into her apartment through a fire escape, and the film’s use of Peggy Lee’s Is That All There Is?, which in its opening lyrics references a childhood confrontation with fire.”

Paul’s burning desire to have an exotic evening in SoHo with a mysterious woman turns into an overwhelming ambition to get back to his normal life.