I’ll clean the mirrors!
—Gary (Jason Flemyng)
Ben (Kiefer Sutherland) is damaged. You know this because, when he wakes and walks to the bathroom, he passes a prominently displayed newspaper page: the headline reveals he’s a former New York detective who shot and killed a uniformed cop. In case you miss that detail, in the next shot Ben wipes off the shower-steamed mirror to stare darkly at himself before he snarfs down a few prescription pills. He’s not smiling.
Kiefer Sutherland, Paula Patton, Ezra Buzzington, Erica Gluck, Cameron Boyce
(20th Century Fox)
US theatrical: 15 Aug 2008 (General release)
UK theatrical: 3 Oct 2008 (General release)
Aside from his recent trauma, Ben is further bothered by the fact that he’s a recovering alcoholic (three months sober), living with his sister Angie (Amy Smart), yearning for his estranged coroner wife Amy (Paula Patton), and working as a security guard at an exceedingly creepy, dreadfully burned out department store. Here, as elsewhere in Mirrors—remade from Sung-ho Kim’s 2003 Into the Mirror, Ben is surrounded by mirrors. These aren’t just any mirrors, but, as he’s soon informed, “windows on our world,” through which poorly defined “demons” watch us. These demons are so evil that they ravage little girls, drown little boys, and cause a pretty young woman to kill herself by pulling her jaw open so wide she breaks her face off. Oh, and they also abuse nuns.
To wreak all this havoc, the demons use Ben, so damaged, is somehow vulnerable to… something. It could be that he’s open to feeling very guilty (for the shooting and for the anger and drinking that followed), that he is desperate to regain his family (not only Amy but two adorable young children as well, played by Erica Gluck and Cameron Boyce), or maybe that he is
Ben’s damage is a running theme in Alexandre Aja’s movie, which uses its many reflective surfaces—windows, TVs, puddles of water, as well as mirrors—to magnify the risk they represent as well as show Ben’s frequent and oh-so-earnest self-contemplations. These are paired with references to his schizzy behavior: when his wife complains, “I don’t know who I’m going to be dealing with from one moment to the next,” he helpfully illustrates. In less than a minute, he’s lurched between rage and vulnerability, desperation and dominance.
While Ben’s bouncing between selves is distracting, it’s not nearly so irksome as the film’s scene-to-scene incoherence. It’s never quite clear when the narrative is unfolding from Ben’s perspective or that of the Mayflower department store (think: the Overlook Hotel), but neither is especially persuasive. Pretty much inexplicably, Ben comes to understand that it is the mirrors (or more precisely, the demons behind them) that are wreaking all manner of horrific vengeance on his family. Though he drops hints about his own sense of guilt (he says his wife and two adorable children are “innocent, they haven’t hurt anyone!”), the movie’s ultimate pile-on of explanations for the demons is much less interesting than Ben’s story—the one Mirrors starts with, after all.
Though Ben has a moment or two of abject fear and even some grief (when a relative dies horribly, the film grants him repeated dissolves of soundless sobbing-selfness), for the most part he’s scampering from scene to scene, his position and tone inconsistent—which, to be fair, is a reasonable response to the movie’s confusion. It’s too bad too, because the essential concept (which is all about the last scene) is not a bad one, and of a piece with Ben’s emotional messiness and self-obsession. This translates in the film to a lot of specious running around: Ben’s search for the source of the mirrors’ bad behavior takes him deep into the store’s basement, of course, as well as a rural home and a monastery in Pennsylvania. Though he has a moment or two of abject fear and even some grief (when someone dies horribly, the film grants him repeated dissolves of soundless sobbing), for the most part he’s scampering from location to location, failing to make sense of his own plot.
The one eventual constancy—and it develops gradually—is your own primary point of reference: Jack Bauer. (On some level, the Sutherland/Jack Bauer doubleness might also be thematic, concerning an actor’s inability to escape his own stardom, but let’s call that a stretch). Rattled or angry, he lets loose Jack Bauer’s signature response (“Damn it!”). Desperate to track down an identity or a bit of background info, he calls his detective buddy, still with the NYPD, who functions as Chloe here, able to find whatever elusive strand Ben needs at any time of day or night (he even goes so far as to deliver a paper file in the rain, a bit lower tech than 24‘s infallible PDAs, but in its way more dramatic (and more like Seven, another good film this one doesn’t borrow from very successfully).
You might also blame Ben’s mirror image Jack for the film’s most pervasive illogic. Though Ben seems set up to want to avoid using his gun (after that accidental, career-ending shooting), he is curiously driven to pull it out and shoot it repeatedly. Granted, it’s mostly at mirrors, until he meets a demon in digitized flesh, when he decides shooting it is a good idea, though you know it’s not. He’s also inclined to be very sinister with people who don’t do what he wants right away. You know where this is going: determined to find a witness, he presses her aging father for information. “It’s a matter of life and death,” Ben growls. “Don’t make me threaten you!” No, please, please, don’t make him do that.