The Cell (review)

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Head Trip

A guided tour through a serial killer’s demented mind sounds like fun, doesn’t it? Imagine the cool CGI we’d find there. Surely there’d be demons and monsters and women chained up like animals and blood and medieval torture and stuff, right?

Yup. The Cell has it all. Like a heavy metal album cover come to life, this is everything you wanted to know about twisted psychotic freaks of nature without the psychobabble mess. This is The Silence of the Lambs for people who find Jodie Foster and Jonathan Demme too thinky.
Jennifer Lopez (Out of Sight) is undeniably ravishing, and that’s the most important thing you need to know. The press notes for The Cell tell us that her Catherine Deane is a “beautiful, young therapist.” Isn’t it obvious that she’s beautiful? Why harp on it? But “beautiful” is the extent of characterization poor Catherine gets, and that’s no fault of Lopez’s — she only needs to be gorgeous and ambiguously kind to serve as a sharp contrast to the hideous and bizarre serial killer Carl Stargher (Vincent D’Onofrio: The Thirteenth Floor, Men in Black), who looks like John Malkovich, and that would be weird enough. But no, Carl has to do things like turn women into dolls by drowning them and then bleaching their bodies. Plus, he lives in the standard issue house of horrors, furnished in early Jeffrey Dahmer, with the add-on gruesome basement, which I bet really packs a wallop when it comes to property taxes. For bonus ironic dread, Carl lives across the street from an elementary school and down the block from a church.

But Catherine does better than FBI agents Peter Novak (Vince Vaughn: Psycho, Clay Pigeons) and Gordon Ramsey (Jake Weber: U-571, Into My Heart). Their characters come down to wardrobe: Peter is Oscar, a nightmare of cheap suits, terrifying ties (the scariest thing in the movie), and a bad haircut. Gordon is a blondly handsome Felix, cutting quite the figure in his stylish navy suits and dark shades. And as it usually worked out on The Odd Couple, Oscar’s the one who gets things done here, while Felix mostly just makes embarrassing noises.

Anyway, Carl manages to induce a convenient catatonia in himself just as an army of FBI robocops swoop down on him, giving him a good out when it comes to interrogation. “Where did I imprison my latest victim, who, by the way, is still alive, though not for long, and caged in a glass-walled cell, sort of like Hannibal Lechter but not quite? Gee, wish I could help, but I’m in a coma. Can I see my lawyer now?”

Notice: No lawyers were harmed in the making of this film — they were kept far away. You’d think there’d be Constitutional issues involved in getting Catherine to, literally, travel inside Carl’s head and ferret out the location of the also- beautiful- and- probably- very- nice- victim. The government needs a warrant to search your house — you’d think they’d at least do you the courtesy of getting one before searching your head.

The Cell laughs at such things. And rightly so. Because then we’d have ended up with a courtroom drama instead of the baroquely weird and pornographically violent head trip it take us on. Catherine straps on a leather bodysuit that may be leftover from David Lynch’s Dune, suspends herself from wires like in Coma, and through a combination of pharmaceuticals and microchips transfers her mind into Carl’s (who is similarly gotup, but you probably would rather think of Lopez in skintight leather than D’Onofrio, right?). It’s a supercool and superadvanced technology developed by egghead scientists (Dylan Baker: Oxygen, Random Hearts; and Marianne Jean-Baptiste) whose story is probably fairly interesting and might even make for a compelling movie, but neither of them is dating a rap star or has ever turned up at a big awards show wearing glue and Kleenex.

Catherine gets to wander round inside Carl’s psyche for a good long time, forcing us to as well, of course, and it’s sort of like Escher drawings as reimagined by a tarot card artist. Carl’s fantasies are fairly dazzling visually and frequently pretty gross, but they’re never scary, not like Hannibal Lechter creeped you out just by carrying on a conversation. Catherine keeps running into a boy version of Carl (Jake Thomas), who is supposed to represent lost innocence or the possibility of redemption or something, but try as the movie might, with some standard clichés of childhood abuse, we never really understand Carl, and so he’s just a gruesome boogeyman. Though he does get to wear devilish horns in one scene, when, instead of raping her, he decides to snap a collar around Catherine’s neck. It’s all in his head — none of it is really real — but still, Carl is a lousy host.

And all the time and energy and money expended on Carl’s CGI nightmares end up for naught, because it’s Peter’s old-fashioned police work that cracks that case (though he does get a turn in Carl’s brain, too). But we don’t see much of Peter’s story either, because although I think Vaughn is cute in an offbeat way, he just isn’t beautiful enough to show us, by sheer dint of contrast and nothing else, how thoroughly and despicably evil Carl is.

The Cell‘s director, Tarsem Singh, is an award-winning commercial and music video “innovator,” the press notes tell me. Screenwriter Mark Protosevich’s biggest claim to fame is that he adapted the Philip K. Dick story “Imposter,” shot as a short film and subsequently lengthened to feature length. (Does this make anyone else uncomfortable? It can’t be a good sign that the full-length Imposter was slated for release this summer and has disappeared.) If this inspires confidence in you, then God bless. You’re a better man than me, Charlie Brown.

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