Getting inside madmen’s heads is all the rage. This isn’t to say it’s news, exactly criminologists, detectives, and sundry monster-chasers have been doing it forever. Think: Sherlock Holmes, Ann Rule, Clarice Starling, Mulder, anyone tangling with Freddy Krueger, Millennium‘s Frank Black, the interchangeable women on Profiler, first-person-shooter games, even Spock, tripping on the Vulcan Mind-Meld. With all this history to live up to, as well as contemporary, high-tech competition, the generation next of criminal-mindfuckers has to be tres cutting edge to get any action at all.
Enter The Cell, Tarem Singh’s film about an imagined technology that allows users to enter other people’s minds, virtual-reality style: “you don’t just observe, you participate.” If this sounds familiar, well, it is. Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes) in Strange Days and Sydney Bloom (Lori Singer) in tv’s VR5 were traversing frontal-lobal synapses five long years before The Cell. In this rendition, Catherine Deane (Jennifer Lopez) has to wear a special sensory catsuit though even that’s old; recall a similar deal for Jobe (Jeff Fahey) and Dr. Angelo (Pierce Brosnan) in 1992’s Lawnmower Man. Still, Catherine’s outfit is sexier as well as scarier: deep red, rubbery, almost amphibian-looking. While in this suit, she must hang from wires and wear a bizarre computer-circuitry rag over her face. Like most every object in the film, including Lopez, the strange gear looks pretty fabulous (I saw a girl Lopez fan wearing a version of this suit on MTV’s Total Request Live this week: as street wear, it does seem extreme, and sweaty). It goes without saying that you shouldn’t go prying into the gear’s logic or science. But then, The Cell doesn’t pretend to do anything other than what it does: mess with your mind something awful. Watching this movie might give you a headache.
The set-up is actually simple, as these things go. The emphasis is on images throbbing, creepy, brilliantly colored. Catherine is a psychologist with a “gift” for empathy (read: Deanna Troi with bite). She doesn’t get out much. In fact, she and her team, Miriam (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) and Henry West (Dylan Baker), spend nearly the entire film inside the Campbell Center, a lab compound. Here Catherine takes psychotropic drugs and uses a “brain-mapping device” to rifle around inside the head of the team’s only client, a boy comatose after nearly drowning (his filthy rich parents subsidize the research).
This rifling looks terrific: when you first see her, Catherine rides a ravishing black horse across the burnt-orange sands of a desert inside the kid’s mind (i.e., as far from water as possible). The colors are hard and surreal: against the blue sky, Catherine’s white-white dress, with a feathered bodice, looks almost like wings atop her black horse. Dismounting, she starts walking: the aerial shots are incredible (her teeny white-gowned body walks endlessly across miles of dunes, emptiness all around her) and Howard Shore’s score screaming vocals and Middle Eastern instrumentation becomes intense, harsh, alarming to ears used to typical movie soundtracks, rising strings and melodies. You might anticipate such striking visuals from Singh, who directed the 1991 video for REM’s “Losing My Religion.” And from here, the metaphors only become darker and more complicated, drawn from a range of cultural sources, biblical, mystical, mythological, artistic, and s&m-fantastical: imagine What Dreams May Come meets Faces of Death meets Tomb Raider.
Alternating with these bizarre shots of the team’s “good” work, you see shots of sick-fuck murderer Carl Stargher (Vincent D’Onofrio, the best glowerer in the business: see Full Metal Jacket and Men In Black) doing his very bad work. Under the watchful eye of his spooky albino German Shepherd (your surrogate? you hope not), Carl gazes longingly at his young woman victim, floating dead in the glass cell where she has recently drowned. He drains and treats the body, turning her into a “doll,” painted and pale, and then suspends himself over her corpse, using hooks he has implanted in his back (hooks like those in the Re-Search wild-piercings books). Already, you see the similarities between Catherine and Carl: both in suspension, both yearning to save and be saved.
Using a basic Ted-Bundyish ruse, Carl kidnaps another woman, then (oops!) lapses into a coma, due to his peculiar kind of schizophrenia. Yadda yadda: Catherine is asked by the FBI Agent Peter Novak (Vince Vaughan) and Agent Gordon Ramsey (Jake Weber) to penetrate Carl’s mind and discover the whereabouts of the kidnapee, whose cell is scheduled to flood in a few hours. He’s a maniacal, dreadful individual whose psyche is sure to be gruesome and dangerous. How can she refuse? The rest of the film tracks Catherine’s efforts to reach the “little boy” version of Carl, trapped inside and alongside the large monstrous version, and surrounded by memories of an abusive father who beat, burned, and river-baptized him so fervently that the boy nearly drowned. A pattern emerges: water water everywhere, equally a means to ruin and salvation.
Be that as it may: Catherine suits up and gets inside these memories, complete with shadowy A-frame house, besieged mom, horridly sliced-up horse, and collection of women-as-dolls in display cases (including some modeled after famous art, like Degas’ “Dancer”). Catherine is appalled but also intrigued: she goes in deeper. That Catherine will be caught in a tussle between little boy Carl and serial killer Carl is foregone, as is the fact that she will learn something about her own dark side and need Peter’s ineffectually gung-ho help while inside Carl’s head.
The movie doesn’t get much past its spectacular-nightmare imagery: plot and characterization are plainly secondary, except as they might affect what you see on screen. Still, this very lack raises a good question: what is character or plot in a film if not an occasion to illustrate visions in filmmakers’ heads? We’re mostly used to watching movies with narratives conflicts, crises, resolutions but this needn’t be the only reason to watch them. We’re used to gauging films by how “realistic” they seem. But what can this mean, in the context of an explicitly imaginative experience, where what you understand to be “real” is abandoned from shot one: reality isn’t even a point of departure here, it’s more like a quaint notion, something lost long ago, like, say, religion. On one level, you can see how all this would be fascinating to a film director wanting to expand the possibilities of digital representation: forget Antz, Final Fantasy, Buzz Lightyear, or even Simone (Al Pacino’s upcoming CGI co-star). Movies don’t need to be about stories anymore (how pedestrian); they can concoct and reflect and distort, they can play games or be games. They can refigure reality, re-present it so that you only half-recognize it, make you believe you recognize it. It’s on you to keep up.
Carl the character has “no reality,” only a consummately warped imagination. (As a cultural product, he’s a function of multiple cliches and stereotypes the atrocious childhood, the psycho dad, the incomprehensible religious rituals however real they might be at any given point in his (or our collective) consciousness. According to The Cell‘s made-up and self-fabricating experts, he’s “an idealized version of himself, a king in his kingdom.” That is, he’s a character, hypothetical, and the film treats him as such, just as it treats Catherine and the doctors and the federal agents, as compilations of common movie-character traits. So, Catherine makes the correct decisions (even when she’s decked out as the Virgin Mary quite the trip), Miriam is comforting and wise, macho guy Peter barks orders to his minions, reveals his own banal backstory (as a DA, he lost a child-killer case on a technicality), and eventually cozies up to Catherine (who has a dead brother in her background). They’re all wounded, sad, and angry, all looking for redemption. And the film doesn’t pretend to give it, to them or to you.
In other words, unlike standard serial killer movies like Silence of the Lambs or The Stranger Beside Me, or even gutsier ones like Summer of Sam, The Minus Man or Felicia’s Journey, The Cell is not the least bit inclined to make sense of itself. Sure, you get the requisite race to rescue and race to put right as sort of parallel climaxes, but neither is particularly interesting and certainly neither has a clear moral ground. For The Cell, the serial killer’s mind is the hook, not the point. A potential point never rally determined might be Catherine’s mind, the do-gooder’s intentions and motivations, but even these ideas are left waysided and disjointed (by design or bad filmmaking? and does it matter?). Maybe there’s something else at stake. Carl, understandably upset at Catherine’s intrusion, roars the film’s best question: “Where do you come from?” Where indeed? You watch with your own backstory, but do you know (or care) how that affects your watching, how it becomes your reality?
Still, such questions no matter how splendid and stimulating don’t take away from The Cell‘s many faults as a regular movie. Fed-boy sidekick Ramsey’s description of the denouement fits the whole shebang: “I’d say pretty fucking strange is par for the course.” It’s infuriating and boring, predictable and incoherent, brutal and romantic. And it’s looking like movies to come.