Dr. Miranda Grey (Halle Berry) is worried about her puffy-faced patient, Chloe (Penélope Cruz). It appears that the girl, incarcerated at the very cold and creepy Woodward Penitentiary for Women for killing her stepfather, is “embellishing her rape story.” During one of those movie-style shrink-sessions where the camera circles them, hunched over a table inside a cage, Chloe asserts that she’s being raped in her cell by the devil: “He tore me like paper, he opened me like a flower of pain, and it felt good.” When Miranda encourages Chloe to ease up on the details and trust her, the patient hands her Gothika‘s tagline: “You can’t trust someone who thinks you’re crazy.”
Chloe erupts into paroxysms of spit and resistance, so that the guards come in to drag her off. Miranda, meanwhile, begins her long walk up from the institution’s bowels, her shoes clicking on hard floors, to the upper floor offices. Here she meets with her supervisor, Doug (Charles Dutton), who stands her in front of a mirror and assures her that she’s brilliant and rational, that she’ll figure out how to make Chloe “accept” her fantasy as such. At which point, he kisses her, mouth open wide — and the audience around me erupted into screams and titters.
Within seconds, it’s revealed that Miranda and Doug are married, and the scary moment is past. But the mismatch (so very apparent to my fellow viewers) haunts the rest of the film, partly because the kiss is interrupted by Dr. Pete Graham (Robert Downey, Jr.), hovering at the office door like the potential illicit love interest he’s supposed to be. That would be an interest for Miranda, though Pete (and Downey, for that matter) is so dodgy and odd, he might easily slide the other way. Doug’s diffidence and Miranda’s rejection of Pete’s dinner offer are plainly setting up intrigue that, drearily, never pays off.
Rather than dig into complex human relations, Gothika careens down another road altogether, an increasingly mundane plot trajectory initiated when Miranda drives off a literal road on her way home that night. Caught in a horrendous thunderstorm, she’s frightened by the specter of a ravaged white girl, hair wet and bedraggled, face bloodied, and the next thing you know, she’s in a drafty cell at Woodward, wearing an unfashionable open-backed gown. Pete stops by for an update: she’s killed her husband and gone crazy. And oh yes, she’s seeing dead people.
Scripted by Sebastian Gutierrez and directed by Mathieu Kassovitz (who made the brilliant La Haine), Gothika‘s tentative intelligence pretty much collapses following this extended set-up. The ghosty girl shows up periodically, at one point throwing her against the cell walls for the apparent purpose of encouraging her to escape (the logic here is somewhat sketchy). Though Pete briefly notes that he should not even be assigned to the case, silly movie logic demands that he step up. So, even as Miranda is wondering whether they ever had an affair, he asks her for “the last thing you remember,” scooting up near to her and inviting her to be the “rational” scientist he knows she can be. Her eyes sunken, her face ashen, Miranda still looks like Halle Berry, following some serious makeup sessions (not to mention the broken wrist she suffered during filming).
While Pete seems alternately beguiled and repulsed by his erstwhile crush (they had no affair, he says, because she was “married to the boss,” though the film invites you to distrust Pete, if only because he’s so obviously un-smart), Miranda’s new cellmates are less wowed. Spotting her in the cavernous common room, Chloe sits down to welcome her to the “other side”: “You’re one of us now,” she smiles. When Miranda protests that she doesn’t “belong here,” Chloe smiles again, reminding her of the implacably smug logic of the sane, as they judge the insane: “If you’re here, it must mean that you belong.”
This ooky dismantling of seeming sense understandably rattles Miranda, whom Pete “the most logical person I know” (and such assessment might be taken with a sizable grain of salt). She meets with several male authority types — her lawyer Teddy (Dorian Harewood, and it’s good just to see him), Doug’s best friend Sheriff Ryan (John Carroll Lynch), her supervisor at the hospital, Dr. Parsons (Bernard Hill) — but none is able to set the situation straight or her mind at ease. In fact, the boys all tend to fall in a line with Pete, assuming she’s crazy, resenting that she’s killed their pal Doug.
You might intuit here the beginnings of a political argument, having to do, perhaps, with societal gender expectations or maybe institutional abuses of prisoners. But the movie doesn’t stretch so far. Instead, it offers a mildly intriguing and repeated restructuring of oppositions — dream or reality, sane or insane, trust or distrust — provides for an increasingly distracting lack of narrative cohesion. On one level, this hardly matters; it’s a gothic thriller and something of a murder mystery, so it’s not supposed to be linear. Still, some scene-to-scene connection could only be beneficial.
Though the ghosty girl is eventually granted a name and particular relationship to Miranda, as well as a righteous fury, she’s resolved into such a cliché of a motivation (for Miranda at least) that the movie can’t recover. Such pedestrian grounding (which pretends to be moralistic but is mostly hysterical) renders the paranormal activity — and more importantly, Gothika‘s challenges to distinctions between sane and insane — strangely humdrum.