Lopez and D'Onofrio are purely at service of Tarsem's visuals
Starring: Jennifer Lopez, Vince Vaughn, Vincent D'Onofrio, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Jake Weber, Dylan Baker, and Jake Thomas
Screenplay: Mark Protosevich
Producers: Julio Caro and Eric McLeod
Director: Tarsem Singh
MPAA Rating: R for bizarre violence and sexual images, nudity and language
The Cell can be easily summed up (and has been by many people) as a cross between The Matrix and The Silence of the Lambs. Doing so does a great disservice to the film. The Cell is much more than that, and from frame one, you will understand. Tarsem Singh's directorial debut is a dark and often very disturbing look at the inner workings of a serial killer's demented mind. Then again, the same can be said about David Fincher's Se7en or Jon Amiel's Copycat. Nothing, however, will prepare you for what you witness on screen here.
As I often say, films have the unique ability to viscerally stimulate the mind and create new and unique worlds for us to behold. Movies like The Cell are why I love going to the movies. They transport me to a whole new world and make me rethink my perceptions--sometimes enticing me to re-evaluate my entire life. The Cell doesn't strive for this kind of importance. Instead, it wants to tell the simple story of a serial killer and the woman trying to save his last victim. It incorporates simple yet effective psychological reasons for this madman's dementia and creative visuals to stimulate the mind. When leaving the theater, you will more than likely have a strange desire to enter the mind of your friends just to get a glimpse of what is going on inside.
Jennifer Lopez stars as Catherine Deane, a psychologist with a gift for helping children. As the film begins, she is trying desperately to bring a young patient out of a comatose state. Using new and untested technology, she enters the mind--literally--of the young boy, interacting with the world that he has created for himself. When she can't coax him out, the parents of the child decide to withdraw him from the therapy sessions, believing she is doing nothing but going on drug-induced mindtrips. She pleads with the parents to let her continue working, but they have seen no improvement over the 18 months of therapy. As a result, the funding of the technology becomes jeopardized, giving them six months to prove the technology actually works.
Enter Carl Stargher (Vincent D'Onofrio). Stargher is giving the FBI the runaround, killing victims and then proceeding to dump their bleached, doll-like bodies near rivers. His method is cruel and horrifying: Stargher places each victim into a small cell, giving them hope of survival. After 40 hours inside, the water pours in, and doesn't stop until the victim is dead. Unfortunately, the cell is totally automated, and his latest victim has just been trapped inside. FBI agent Peter Novak (Vince Vaughn) is in desperate pursuit, trying to find the girl before the inevitable. Luck is on their side when they discover Stargher after some brilliant detective work. Only one problem: Stargher has fallen into a comatose state, described as "a dream from which he'll never wake up."
From here on, The Cell takes on a surreal and nightmarish quality, moreso than any film I've seen in my life. Catherine enters Stargher's mind, and in one brilliant scene (quite possibly the most breathtaking use of visuals and sound in years), discovers there is much more at stake than just the life of his last victim. Here is where The Cell exceeds the most. There is much at risk here, and by the end, someone is going to die. The mood of the film sets this up. Who dies may be a surprise, but all ends as it should. This is not a film in which you'll leave the theater happy. Tarsem wants to take us to the darkest side of life, and he portrays it through amazing cinematography, special effects, costume design, and set design. It's not as risk-taking as Fincher's Se7en but it does something even that film didn't: it takes us on a trip to find out why serial killers kill. The results may be predictable if you've taken any Psychology 101 course, but that isn't the film's area of expertise. Childhood trauma can cause amazing problems in adult life (who doesn't know this?). But to see, as the mind can, the disturbing reality of it all is unique and haunting.
Perhaps I am giving The Cell too much credit. After all, most of these visuals have been used before. This film would not exist were it not for MTV. And of course, Tarsem is a direct child of the MTV generation. Like Fincher and Spike Jonze, Tarsem's spent most of his career creating visuals to juxtapose the music. Then again, both Fincher and Jonze have gone on to bigger and better things (reportedly, even Fincher helped out editing this film). MTV may be dumped on by many people, but the music videos are adequate primers for aspiring directors to acquire a visual sense. After all, cinema is all about the visual side of storytelling. If I want to hear someone talk a lot about their problems, I'll go to a play or read a book. Movies are primarily for the eyes, and The Cell is a feast for both of them. "Tell the story visually" is what I was always tought in film school. Tarsem must have learned the same thing.
Jennifer Lopez isn't required to do much acting here beyond bare-minimum levels. Her character is here for us to find a connection inside Stargher's mind. She is who we see this madness through, and she maintains a humane quality without being readily identifiable. When she gets stuck inside Stargher's mind, Novak must save her life as well. While inside, he discovers the whereabouts of the final victim through simple detective work which could have easily been handled in the real world. This may seem like a copout, but to the astute viewer, you will soon realize that this story is not about the killer's victim, but the killer himself. It is not about saving a girl from dying--it's about saving a man from himself. There's a scene inside Stargher's mind which is quite poignant in its simplicity as he recalls his first killing. It's grotesque and beautiful at the same time. Everything here is the same: beautifully grotesque. There is an emotionally-wrenching scene when a young boy is abused by his father (thankfully most of which is handled off-screen). Nevertheless, you will find yourself wincing and recoiling at the horror on screen.
The Cell is an achievement of filmmaking on virtually every level. The screenplay is adequate enough, but the real triumph is in Tarsem's use of visual trickery to entice the viewers. His cinematographer Paul Laufer has captured some amazing images, topped off by a 180-degree arcing camera which lifts out of water, turns upside down, and dives back in. Despite the vivid use of special effects, everything here looks as if it was done directly on the set, without much help from computers. The film is given a bleached look at times, mimicking the bleaching of the bodies the killer performs. At other times, it is saturated with color. At all times, it is beautiful to look at. The music, done by minimalist Howard Shore, is effective, maintaining the mood that permeates the film. Incidentally, Shore also did the music for Fincher's Se7en. Tom Foden, the production designer, created some of the most striking sets for this film--perhaps the best use of set design since Dario Argento's Suspiria. The real star, however, are costume designers Eiko Ishioka and April Napier. Ishioka, an Oscar-winning designer who may just have another award on her shelf for her work here, created the wondrous and vividly strange costumes we see throughout the film. Napier, whose work is less prominent but nicely contrasted, created the real-world costumes. Costumes play a big role here, changing Lopez from a damsel in distress to a queen in her own world to a venerable Virgin Mary. The most imaginative occurs during Catherine's first confrontation with Stargher, as his cape envelopes the room. He is King here, and the magnitude of it is awe-inspiring. As is, expect Ishioka to be nominated once again. All of these elements work hand in hand to create this nightmarish world of the mind of a serial killer. And I, for one, was drawn in entirely.
The Cell is rated R for bizarre violence and sexual images, nudity and language. To call The Cell disturbing is a bit of an understatement. I've never winced so many times during one film in my life. However, that is exactly the reaction Tarsem is going for. He doesn't want you to be unmoved. He wants you to be horrified--so horrified that you sometimes can't even watch. There are moments which are so hard to watch, you may feel as if you are really there, experiencing it all firsthand. I won't try and convey the disgusting acts portrayed on screen, as it isn't easy to put into words. This is a film based solely on visuals, and visuals alone. It works. And I know for sure, I won't be forgetting it anytime soon.
**** out of ****
Reviews by Boyd Petrie