Mind-bending Movies: ”The Cell” (2000)

by yemenity2010

mindbendingmovies-logo1Are there too many movies about serial killers? Yes, definitely. Do they all live up to their intentions? No, of course not. This one maybe doesn’t either. Not completely. But – director Tarsem Singh and screenwriter Mark Protosevich at the very least made a serious effort to do something different, to go boldly where others feared to tread. Visually, ”The Cell” is exciting, sometimes truly original and oftentimes quite shocking. Unfortunately, there are moments when it all begins to feel like a sterile exercise and accusations of ’show-off’ are not entirely without merit. Overall, I’m an admirer, albeit with some objections. It is a film that probably was ahead of its time in some aspects. 

Just to clarify, this is also the kind of movie that most of mankind probably wouldn’t love unconditionally. After having seen it for the first time on a big screen in Gothenburg late 2000, I spontaneously felt I really couldn’t recommend it to a whole lot of people among my friends or family. Following Jennifer Lopez on her odyssey into the mind of a serial killer simply didn’t seem like a healthy experience for most of my acquaintances.

Pretentious, was a word many critics used to label it back then as I remember. On the other hand, legendary critic Roger Ebert (1942-2013) hailed it as one of the best films of the year. A film to either love or hate, you might say. But that simplification seldom rings 100 percent true. There’s always a middle ground to be found. Especially if you – like me that first time– get almost equally fascinated and confused while watching it. For starters, you need to try tuning in to the same frequency as then first-time movie director Tarsem Singh, another one of those music video directors who at that time seemed to invade the world of movies, maybe hoping to be recognized as real artists. If you’re suffering from extreme claustrophobia, on the other hand, this could be quite an ordeal. ”The Cell” invites you to a David Lynch-like confrontation between innocence and evil, between purity and rage. As if a cross-pollination of Gloria Estefan and Sarah Brightman got lost at a promotion party and woke up in the living room of Marilyn Manson.

There are three things I always value in a film, regardless of genre. Things that need to be prioritized by the filmmakers. Start, finish and soundtrack. ”The Cell” delivers on all three. The opening shots are a real beauty, with Lopez in a white dress, riding a magnificent black stallion through a mysterious desert landscape heading for a rendez-vous without the romantic pay-off that could have been expected in a different story. The finale offers a level of tension and a scenario reminiscent of ”Silence of the Lambs” and (yes, I mean it) ”The Godfather”. It’s about clever cutting while simultaneously charging the images with symbolism that I prefer not to divulge if you’re in for the surprise elements as well as the visual experience of watching. I will try to avoid overt spoilers here, even though 15 years have passed since it was first released. Imagine that. Time flies. The finish makes me forgive many of the issues I have with other details along the road. And the music, yes. Most good movies tend to have a potent soundtrack of some sort (with Hitchcock’s ”The Birds” being one of the distinct exceptions to the rule). This is not an exception. Howard Shore was by then a man who had established himself, not least in the world of suspense, to the point of becoming the Bernard Herrmann of his generation. Almost. Here, he demonstrated something I hadn’t quite heard before, some obvious oriental influences I guess director Singh must have explicitly asked for.

Speaking of ”Silence of the Lambs”, back in the 90’s and early 00’s during the seemingly never-ending wave of serial killer flicks, some viewers/critics/marketing people would inevitably greet every new entry to the subgenre with slogans such as ”this makes Hannibal Lecter look like a lamb” or things to that effect. Still, few movie psychopaths have managed to surpass the charismatic portrayal that Anthony Hopkins delivered under the supervision of director Jonathan Demme. In his 27 minutes (I read that somewhere) of screentime Hopkins did more than just introduce macabre methods of murdering people. Similarly, in ”Se7en”, the greatness was not simply a question of morbid innovation when it came to finishing off the chosen victims. Something deeper was at play.

The serial killer in ”The Cell” is named Carl Stargher and played by Vincent D’Onofrio (fans of Netflix’ ”Daredevil” will recognize him as Very Bad Guy Wilson Fisk last year). Superficially, he’s neither that creative nor unbelievably intelligent. He doesn’t command a strong presence or irrestibility on any level as I recall it – check out that haircut, for one thing. However, early on he just kidnapped his eight intended victim. They’re all young women first being slowly drowned in a glass cage, then bleached to become part of a disturbing dollhouse, and later on just dumped somewhere on the outskirts of town. For roughly half an hour a number of things seem familiar from other serial killer-themed movies. The predator preys while the good folks at FBI search for clues, perform autopsies and gather for yet another tense morning meeting surrounded by walls covered with crime scene photos, and concluded with stern requests that they ’search thoroughly – and quickly’. Then, the hunt is over and ”The Cell” comes into its own.

The killer’s in a coma and the usual interrogation techniques are useless. Enter Ms Catherine Deane (Lopez) who’s the point woman from an experimental program including electronic explorations into the world of the subconscious. Deane, reluctantly, agrees to infiltrate the seemingly inactive mind, to be confronted by the horrors of the past as well as the even more frightening present. Exactly how these impulses are transferred is never quite clarified (at least not in a way I’m capable of interpreting) and it might be of lesser importance. But the idea in itself makes one’s head spin somewhat… The last frontier crossed, the last unexplored continent open wide? The interaction between body and psyche is the focus in this film. How much physical and mental strain can a human being cope with, without suffering irreparable damage? Could the mind convince the body that a virtual experience is real and what happens then? The plot keeps switching between a California landscape where the sun shines constantly, and a big black hole where reason has been replaced by a disturbed individual’s wishes of being able to command his entire surroundings.

In the classic story ”The Portrait of Dorian Gray” by Oscar Wilde, the protagonist wanted his portrait to age in his stead. His wish was granted and the painting gradually came to reflect Mr Gray’s increasingly degenerate soul. If you’re blessed with a normally developed sense of insight and perception, you could imagine what the soul, the inner world, of a serial killer might look like and determine if it’s worth the price of admission (or a DVD copy, or whatever) to subject yourself to the experience. If you do it, you won’t have to look for subtle details. The images will come right at you, intensely and mercilessly. Director Tarsem doesn’t hold back when it comes to the twisted and violent. But – and this is crucial – he shows cause and effect and also emphasizes the opposite of evil. Catherine comes off as almost angelic, but not as weak and gullible as first impressions might lead you to believe. She strives to save the miserable abused child who’s become a monster and she doesn’t settle just for the imminent objectives set up by the FBI; saving the eight woman before it’s too late. This line of storytelling is a balancing act, for Lopez as well as for Tarsem, but here it’s obvious that the film shares some common philosophical ground with Michael Mann’s ”Manhunter” (based on Thomas Harris’ ”Red Dragon”), as it happens another film containing the character Hannibal Lecter.

The syncretistic symbolism here is likely to confuse as much as convince. Tarsem doesn’t hold back in that respect either; he and screenwriter Protosevich get their inspiration from, well, basically everywhere. Horrible creatures reminiscent of ancient Greek mythology? Check. East Asian interiors and Catholic saints? You bet. Occasionally the story seems to take a break just for the opportunity to wallow in its fantastical imagery. There are a lot of impressions to interpret and I hope the filmmakers themselves know what they’re up to. But, if there’s anything ”The Cell” does not claim, it’s that badness or evil should be something innate, natural to some people, you’re simply born with it and that’s that. There is something more inquisitive going on here, not quite finished but certainly raising interesting issues to debate afterwards.

So, how do the actors fare in all this? Lopez gets a a lot of screen time and room to move (in spite of the title) and D’Onofrio’s role as the schizophrenic Stargher is a true challenge, for him and for the rest of us trying to decipher his character without a degree in clinical psychiatry. Vince Vaughn as a FBI agent gets to act out more gradually, while accomplished actors Dylan Baker and Marianne Jean-Baptiste seem underused as scientists running the experiment. They’re sort of stuck behind their terminals and reduced to mostly functional, tech-oriented duties.

It’s possible that Tarsem Singh in his feature debut did take on a little more than he could handle. Not everyone is Orson Welles first time around. However, as I said before, to me the film seems rather to have increased its value than diminished in hindsight. ”The Cell” is in so many ways a bold undertaking, a brave beginning and a film that still stands out for what it dares try and many others haven’t. Singh went on to make a perhaps even more fascinating little film called ”The Fall” (one that you really should see) and the somewhat less than brilliant ”Immortals”. His career hasn’t quite been what this film promised, but hopefully it isn’t over yet. Pretensions aren’t necessarily a bad thing.