The Cell

(2000)

by Matt Wedge, Managing Editor

If you’ve ever stumbled across a notorious critical and commercial bomb on cable and thought, Hey, this isn’t so bad, this is the column for you. Each month, we’ll examine a new failed film that’s worth a second look.

Glossy images of studied, surrealistic beauty vie with those of mutilation, disembowelment, corpses and captive, tortured women. Either way, it is mind-numbing. — Bob Graham, San Francisco Chronicle

The major problem is that The Cell continuously echoes The Silence of the Lambs, only minus the intricate character interplay, Jonathan Demme’s direction and the taut storyline. — Eleanor Ringel Gillespie, Atlanta Journal-Constitution

I know people who hate it, finding it pretentious or unrestrained; I think it’s one of the best films of the year. — Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

The Cell is the type of movie I should hate. The regular criticism against it is that it relies on its astounding visuals to cover up a deficient story that was cobbled together from bits and pieces of other films. This is mostly true. But the visuals on display are so intricate they — and the surprisingly good performances by the cast — elevate the film beyond its derivative story to something resembling an art film by way of a serial killer thriller.

Carl Stargher (Vincent D’Onofrio) is a very bad man. As a serial killer, his kinks make Hannibal Lecter seem like the picture of psychological health. Carl kidnaps young women, keeps them for forty hours, drowns them, cleans them, makes them up to look like dolls, then disposes of the bodies. When the film opens, he has killed his seventh victim. When he makes a mistake while dumping the latest victim, FBI agents Peter Novak (Vince Vaughn) and Gordon Ramsey (Jake Weber) quickly track him to his house. Unfortunately, Carl suffers a seizure as the result of a rare form of schizophrenia. The seizure leaves him catatonic which is a problem because Julia Hickson (Tara Subkoff), his latest victim, is in a tank somewhere waiting for the water to fill it up and drown her.

Desperate for any way to find Julia, Peter and Gordon take Stargher to an experimental clinic where child psychiatrist Catherine Deane (Jennifer Lopez) is able to enter the subconscious of her catatonic patients and try to help them to rejoin the waking world. But once in Stargher’s subconscious, Catherine finds his personality split into three parts. One is a little boy who relives all of Stargher’s childhood abuse. The second is Stargher as an adult who realizes he has become a monster and is powerless to stop himself. The third is an idealized version of Stargher that is a god in his mind — a merciless, frightening monster of a man who terrorizes Catherine to the point where she risks not being able to understand the difference between Stargher’s mind and reality.

Needless to say, that’s a hell of a lot of setup for the first 45 minutes of the film. This leads to a near record amount of exposition that finds the characters in very clichéd scenes as they talk out the points that the audience needs to know in order to understand what’s happening. This is where the excellent casting comes into play. Veteran character actors like Weber, Dylan Baker, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Dean Norris, James Gammon, and Pruitt Taylor Vince, all make the necessary plot and character explanations go down with ease. While I would have preferred for the script by Mark Protosevich to have found a clever way to get across the needed nuts-and-bolts information of the story’s somewhat complicated sci-fi elements, I was willing to let this quibble slide because of the fascinating visuals and the quite good performances by Lopez and Vaughn.

It’s become fashionable in the post-Gigli world to bash Jennifer Lopez, no matter the role or the movie. To be fair, she has courted much of this criticism through bad script choices (Monster-in-Law, The Back-up Plan) and relying on a rigid set of expressions in place of actual acting. But it’s easy to forget that she was once a promising leading lady with appealing turns in Out of Sight and Selena. As Catherine, Lopez plays the stock crusading psychiatrist role with a disarming vulnerability. She’s no damsel-in-distress, but she never talks a tough game or puts on a false front of bravado that she’s unable to back up. She’s what the movie needs her to be: a passionate, sympathetic heroine who gets in over her head.

Likewise, Vaughn really surprised me in the film. Until he hit a rough streak that started with Fred Claus, I was a fan of his comedic work, but his attempts at being a dramatic leading man always left me cold. Here he finds a new take on the standard role of the obsessed FBI agent. Sporting a look of repressed anger and guilt that comes across as spookily real, his performance gives the impression of a man haunted by a past that he can barely bring himself to talk about. He even takes one of the most poorly written monologues I’ve ever heard, and turns it into a lament for his rapidly deteriorating sanity.

But despite the impressive acting on display, this is Tarsem Singh’s show all the way. A veteran commercial and music video director, he’s best known for the creepy and pretentious video to R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion.” Actually, creepy and pretentious is a good way to describe The Cell. Singh supplies an abundance of images both horrific and oddly beautiful (backed by a spectacular Howard Shore score), turning Stargher’s mind into a playground to trot out every trick he picked up in his commercial and music video days. That he uses these tricks is where the source of much of the film’s criticism lies. If Singh hadn’t used these techniques to such astounding effect, I would have been first in line to complain. But much like Moulin Rouge, another movie I was surprised to find that I loved, The Cell transcends its visual extravagances and emerges as a compelling argument for style over substance. At least, every now and then.

Where I don’t feel the film gets enough credit is in its superior third act. Buried beneath the expansive visuals that take up so much of the second act, the story gains momentum, becoming surprisingly compelling as it races to a breathless climax. Singh has always been credited as a dazzling stylist, but not much of a storyteller. After watching The Cell, I feel that is an unfair complaint. Besides easily hitting every story and character beat (admittedly, not always smoothly), he skillfully uses a terrific crosscutting structure during the climax that goes between Catherine battling the Stargher god and Peter racing to save Julia from drowning. It’s an exciting sequence that made me realize how the suspense portion of the film had really snuck up on me.

Considering the film wasn’t a traditional mainstream thriller, The Cell did surprisingly well at the box office. But the taint of some vicious reviews has left the mistaken impression that it failed on all fronts. While not the best film of the year as Roger Ebert enthused, it is a superior thriller that found a promising director (a promise that was fulfilled with one of 2008’s best films, The Fall) and good cast overcoming a weak script to create something unique. That’s always worth celebrating.

Matt Wedge is a writer and film critic currently doing time in the suburbs of Connecticut.

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