“Where do you come from?”
After being enraptured by its trailer and what looked to be some nightmarishly stunning visuals, it has taken me ten years to finally see Tarsem Singh’s The Cell. Every time I had the desire to rent it, the words of so many around me saying not to waste the effort always killed the idea. But I am the kind of person who can love a movie strictly from its aesthetics, whether the story is coherent or just barely interesting. Having the same feelings after watching the trailer for The Fall, I decided to take the chance and watch, soon seeing it become my favorite film of 2008. If Tarsem could weave together a lyrical and poetic journey through imagination such as that, how could I deny at least seeing his debut to give it a shot? So, with the Netflix DVD sitting on my desk for a about a month, I popped it in and took a trip into the mind of a killer. I’ll admit that it isn’t the greatest film ever made, but it is effective it what it set out to do. Enthralling, scary, psychological, and still retaining a sense of hope, The Cell definitely doesn’t get a fair shake.
Mark Protosevich’s script isn’t necessarily the most accessible work ever written. One does have to set aside some disbelief and allow the premise of entering a comatose mind in order to interact with the afflicted to be plausible. Whereas in The Fall, the characters themselves are creating the dream world onscreen, changing it as their motivations evolve, the construct here is one of being inside the subconscious, an environment made up of a person’s deepest and darkest core of self. No matter how good you would like to be, if there is darkness inside you, it will inherently be stronger—powerful enough to subdue any sense of humanity or compassion for the sake of its bloodlust. While this is a good description of serial killer Carl Stargher’s warped psyche, it doesn’t pertain to the innocent boy we are introduced to at the start, even though he has the same rare form of viral schizophrenia. This boy is too young to understand and/or choose the dark over light. Unfortunately, he has been trapped inside his head before being able to create the kind of world he’d love to inhabit, so the fear of the unknown, the anxiety of being held captive has brought in the boogeyman, building one more wall to prevent him from escaping.
I think the film does a great thing by showing us how the experimental piece of science fiction at the center of the story works on the innocent. We are shown how devoted Catherine Deane is to helping this boy return to his parents, risking everything with the belief that taking him to a conventional hospital will only ease his suffering until his soul is released. She knows that she must get the boy to enter her mind; taking a troubled child out of the abusive environment and into one that can show him safety is what has worked in her experience as a social worker, so why not try it in the realm of imagination? The danger is deemed too much, so until the opportunity presents itself for her to make the attempt, we will never know if reversing the mind connection process can effectively work. Who would have thought that bringing in a serial killer—comatose and the only one who knows where his latest victim is being held—would be the guinea pig she needs. If bringing a scared boy into her mind was risky, who knows what kind of consequences could arise by having a cold-blooded killer enter her sanctuary of support and love. Luckily for us, Tarsem has a few ideas up his sleeve to make it all a reality.
The script uses a made-up condition called Whalen’s Infraction to be the cause for both inert patients’ connection to each other. Stemming from a trauma dealing with water, (Is this as thin a cause as I think it is?), the breach is catastrophic. Young Edward Baines had an accident sailing that coincided with a seal incident and Stargher experienced a seizure when getting baptised. While Edward went under right then and there, the water just serves as another fear of his to refuse breaking free from his subconscious, never allowing Catherine to take him sailing in his mind. Carl, however, grew up through mental and physical abuse at the hand of his father after the incident, devolving into a monster without regard for human life, bringing water into his crimes by watching each of his victims drown. So, whether you see it as obvious, contrived, or relevant, of course the landscape of Stargher’s mind will contain glass-enclosed cages, water to rise up from or submerge into, and also blood, that liquid trapped within him. So, while the story, when dissected may be trivial, I do think it serves its purpose by allowing the visuals to take control and become the driving force, using the words as a springboard to fully encase the audience in the nightmare onscreen.
You cannot deny the effectiveness of the costumes and the art direction on display either. I could watch the slomo sequences inside Carl’s head over and over again, completely forgetting there is even a hunt for a serial killer’s victim going on. The camera angles and composition of frame utilized is mesmerizing and definitely, along with the cinematography of The Fall, shows how Tarsem has a singular visionary style. His ability to show scale is amazing, especially when being constrained by a widescreen format. In order to show how immense a sand dune is, he must pan out far away, showing the small figure of Jennifer Lopez’s Catherine walking the massive windblown mountain. The opening credit sequence is stunning in and of itself with the captivating angles shown—her footprints the only blemishes on the smooth tan surfaces, the names in white precisely positioned in the curves of the sand. You know the majesty of the dream worlds will be sights to behold, but the real success comes from the beauty these starkly minimal frames can contain. Even the geometrical architecture of the facility this experimental research is being conducted is shot from odd vantage points, making what very well could be a normal building look like a futuristic structure where scientific discoveries are unveiled.
Even if you allow the visuals to take center stage and accept the limitations of the script, with its easy answers and somewhat lack of real danger, there is one glaring issue that unfortunately can’t be ignored. No, it is not the acting prowess of Lopez, who I will admit to being quite capable here—more so as the statuesque figure trapped in Carl’s mind than the compassionate woman wanting to cure the world. It is Vince Vaughn who is absolutely miscast as an FBI agent that stands out from the rest. I love the guy, don’t think I have a vendetta against him, but rather than appear stern, competent, and driven like his character should—and after that story of what made him join the force, let alone the allusions that maybe he too was sexually abused as a child and came out of it a kindhearted person looking to save people, he should—Vaughn comes off as a funny guy trying to contain the smile. The artifice of keeping a straight face is always there, breaking the realism that a film like this needs to be successful. Otherwise, you don’t get a better demented villain than Vincent D’Onofrio; Dylan Baker and Marianne Jean-Baptiste are stalwart as always playing the doctors who created the mind melding technology; and character guys like Dean Norris, Jack Webber, and an uncredited Peter Sarsgaard do what they do best.
While not a perfect film, I think I can appreciate what Tarsem has done more now, looking back, than if I saw it in 2000. I remember watching Signs for the first time and absolutely hating it. Only when I saw The Village, one of my favorite films and by far M. Night Shyamalan’s greatest achievement, did I look back at his alien invasion film and see what worked. The Village never could have happened had it not been for Signs; he experimented with tone and style, honing those visual and emotional ideas to perfection in order to unleash his masterpiece as the next film in his oeuvre. Having seen The Fall first, I can compare the two and see how some things didn’t quite work in The Cell, but were tinkered and improved upon to excel in his sophomore effort. Sometimes a piece of artwork can only be fully appreciated when put into context with the rest of the artist’s work. If one believes in the auteur theory of film, then this must be the case. The Cell is a better film for what it allowed Tarsem to do with The Fall, and after seeing it can only wait in greater anticipation for his next, Dawn of War.
The Cell 8/10 | ★ ★ ★