1 Hr., 47 Mins.
The Cell September 17, 2019
s The Cell (2000) opens, a woman wanders around aimlessly in the desert. She’s wearing a flowing white dress; she’s played by Jennifer Lopez. The following tableaux are sweeping and expansive. Is this is a survival movie about a runaway bride who ran farther than she'd planned?
Moments later, the movie offers a cliché it will continue to offer again
and again for the next 90-plus minutes: Everything in front of us is a dream. The woman Lopez plays is actually a child psychologist named Catherine Deane, not an almost-was wife. The movie in which she stars is set in the present-day, but it has a conceit that only makes sense in a futurist science-fiction story where cars hover and every screen is a touch screen. Deane is well-known in her field for using a new technology that allows her to travel into the minds of comatose patients. Once swimming in their craniums, she works to coax them out of their slumber. The desert we're introduced to, we find out, is just a vision from the mind of a schizophrenic kid named Edward, who’s been led into a coma by a viral infection. Deane’s methods, which are still in the process of getting perfected, aren’t doing much for him. Edward’s parents, while initially trusting of Deane, are beginning to look at her as something of a fool.
The opening of The Cell is less than appealing. Will this be a movie simply about a psychologist helping kids? The seemingly disconnected next sequence proves to us that the film’s probably going to get a lot darker — and by one’s lurid standards more interesting — than that. It introduces us to a serial killer, the glassy-eyed and ‘60s-rocker-haired Carl Stargher (Vincent D’Onofrio), and his modus operandi. Typically, he kidnaps a conventionally beautiful blond, records them later drowning in a bizarre Bond villain-like glass enclosure, and then watches the tapes later. We know where this all might be going, and we don’t want it to go there. But the movie, which has been directed with a sort of masochistic beauty by Tarsem Singh, does anyway. It turns out that Stargher has the same schizophrenia-related viral infection as Edward. He, too, falls into a coma. Deane is asked to take a dive into his mind not to plainly nudge him out, but because, just before clocking out, Stargher claimed his latest victim (Tara Subkoff). Currently the latter is either nervously sitting or frantically flitting about in that strange box, where water is agonizingly coming in little by little.
Some have called The Cell reductive of The Silence of the Lambs (1991). I can see it. In many ways, it's the scene where FBI agent Clarice Starling (Jodi Foster) ambles around the serial murderer Buffalo Bill’s (Ted Levine) pitch-black home trying not to get killed herself writ large. But I found the movie in contrast pruriently magnetic and original, not so much a perversion of a sacred text. And besides: The Silence of the Lambs, inexhaustibly effective as it is, cannot claim to have been the first piece of entertainment to toy with the venturing-into-the-mind-of-a-killer narrative device. (In this case, say that Bill’s house is his psychological world and, for a climactic moment, Starling is just living in it.) The Cell does two things that make it a cut above your characteristic serial-killer-movie fare. It makes its moves with a largely unparalleled bound-to-be-divise sadomasochistic style, which is sort of a cross between H.R. Giger and the more unmoored of Park Chan-wook. It also intelligently asks us, sort of like Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), to not necessarily sympathize with its main murderer but to ruminate on the kind of abuse that can lead a person to go from sheep to wolf.
Some, too, have thrust on The Cell the pejorative style-over-substance label. I can’t say the classification’s wrong, but with the film it’s clear that style was always supposed to be the priority: once we start slinking inside the mind of Stargher, the movie becomes a slide show — and a fascinating one at that — of concurrent Barbie Nightmare House and glamorous Satanic imagery. I loved, with an admittedly twisted fascination, the boldness of Singh’s images and how he presented them: the way he connects ornate, circus-inspired costuming with the furniture and filigree; the purposeful choppiness of the editing, which at first seems the result of amateurish filmmaking but after a while reveals itself to be a smart implementation of nightmare posturing.
The movie doesn’t altogether give the characters inner lives. But the built-in urgency of the narrative, combined with the daring of the film’s look, kept me engrossed. We’re being hungrily grabbed in all directions. Not just sensually and psychologically but also by the race-against-time premise, and the simultaneously gorgeous and I-want-to-look-away-but-can’t looniness of the images. In movies so steeped in style, the actors might get swallowed whole — and if that doesn't happen to them, they're likely to become little more than decorations. But Lopez and Vince Vaughn, who plays the FBI agent who assists Deane, surprisingly fit. Initially they seemed too commercial of actors for a movie trying to bring the arthouse into the mainstream. But then that seems exactly the point. No one is anything other than a fish out of water when creeping about in the mind of a serial killer, or sauntering in Singh’s world for that matter.
The Cell works well mostly because of its constant tug-of-war of wrongness and, in a failure of articulation on my part, rightness. Its dedication to its imagery is primed to feel masturbatory. But Singh, like the best of cinematic stylists, is always in command of his craft, never too indulgent in what he’s offering. He has such confidence in what he does that you get enraptured, eager to see what he does next. A-