Sunday 22 March 2020

Movie Review: The Cell (2000)

A serial killer drama with a difference, The Cell combines imaginative horror, psychology and science fiction to invade a murderer's psyche.

Psychologist Dr. Catherine Deane (Jennifer Lopez) is part of team attempting experimental treatments for schizophrenia. Using revolutionary technology developed by Dr. Miriam Kent (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) and Henry West (Dylan Baker), she enters the mind of young patient Edward to try and lure him out of his coma.

Meanwhile Carl Stargher (Vincent D'Onofrio) is a deeply disturbed schizophrenic serial killer. He kidnaps young women and isolates them for days in an automated holding tank, gradually increasing the level of water in a cleansing ritual before the kill. After kidnapping his latest victim Julie Hickson (Tara Subkoff), Carl succumbs to his illness and drops into an irreversible coma. FBI Agent Peter Novak (Vince Vaughn) desperate needs to know where Julie is being held, and turns to Catherine with a request to enter Carl's mind to search for clues.

More of a visual feast than a traditional serial killer thriller, The Cell most resembles a visit to an elaborate modern art gallery as director Tarsem Singh brings music video panache to his cinematic debut. Stunning production design, outlandish costumes and make-up, an imagination on steroids and crisp cinematography combine to produce a memorable and knowingly disturbing experience.

The Cell is rich in symbolism, some of it religious, as well as echoes of inspiration from other films, including an opening shot that salutes no less than Lawrence Of Arabia. Water plays a key role in Stargher's agony and derangement, while horses help Catherine navigate foreign minds.

For all the emphasis on ostentatious style, the Mark Protosevich script does also provide an intriguing and relatively original race-against-time narrative. There is a short segment of detective work where Novak and his colleagues frantically work to identify and apprehend Stargher as his kill rate increases, but the real drama resides in the urgent infiltration of a killer's mind.

And it's up to Catherine to navigate a horror show where childhood trauma and a history of brutal abuse co-exist with an adult damaged beyond repair, trapped in his own grandeur but holding one last secret that may yet save a life. The link between deep childhood emotional upheaval and the adult descent into the worst kind of criminality is typical Hollywood fare, and here it amped up with sexual repression, sado-masochism and some disgusting gore.

Just as the film's strength are vivid, so are some suspect moments. The Peter Novak character almost literally wanders in from another movie, and some of the protocols in the mission-critical mind invasion science room, including dog privileges, are loosey-goosey at best. Singh's rush to the next spectacular tableau often overwhelms the pacing, The Cell sometimes resembling a hypnotic experience on warp speed.

Jennifer Lopez maintains a steady presence without achieving any breakthrough moments, while Vince Vaughn struggles to grab a hold of Novak. Vincent D'Onofrio plays to his strength as an unhinged murderer responding to vile impulses.

The Cell tackles horrid subject matter, wrapping grotesque inhumanity in incongruous yet gorgeous packaging.

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