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CELL, THE(director: Tarsem Singh; screenwriter: Mark Protosevich; cinematographer: Paul Laufer; editors: Paul Rubell/Robert Duffy; cast: Jennifer Lopez (Catherine Deane), Vince Vaughn (Peter Novak), Vincent D’Onofrio (Carl Stargher), Dylan Baker (Henry West), Jake Weber (FBI Agent, Gordon Ramsey), James Gammon (FBI supervisor,Teddy Lee), Tara Subkoff (Julia Hickson), Marianne Jean-Baptiste (Dr. Miriam Kent), Patrick Bauchau (Mr. Baines), Colton James (Edward Baines); Runtime: 110; New Line Cinema; 2000)
“Jennifer Lopez is surprisingly credible as a therapist.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A visually stunning serial killer film with mind-bending special effects, computer imaging, special F/X, and gorgeous costumes, as directed by commercial and music-video director Tarsem Singh in his debut feature film. The cinematic beauty and originality of this pioneering visual film hides the banality of the story and the weak storytelling, as the director doesn’t know quite what to do with the film after setting it up with set designs that are simply breathtaking. He doesn’t know how to close the story or how to keep it suspenseful. The visuals are so stimulating, that they almost cover up all the film’s loose ends.

This is an arty serial killer film that is not necessarily an art nor a mainstream film — it’s an in-betweener.

Catherine (Lopez) is a child psychologist, who has a special gift for getting children to trust her and open up. She is very sensitive to their hurts and speaks in a hush inflection, showing them much love. She is currently working with the child (Colton) of a billionaire who is in a coma. The radical method used is an experimental procedure which allows Catherine to become connected with her patient by entering their mind, where she will communicate with them on a subconscious level. Catherine and the patient hang suspended in rust colored vinyl suits. Dr. Miriam Kent (Jean-Baptiste) and Henry West (Dylan Baker) serve as her supervisors, backups, and as the research scientists on the project who support her efforts to enter her patient’s mind. The visuals inside the mind are spectacular images of lunacy and are laced with compelling and original art designs, and all of the images are beautifully colored. In the child’s head, she is dressed as a princess in a white feathered gown standing on glistening island sand with a crystal clear sky invading the senses with an array of brightness that could be as inviting as a tourist commercial for travelers, except there is a bizarre quality about these images that is more than an eyeful for an ad.

Most of the film is spent taking a mind trip with Catherine as she explores the subconscious of both this child and of a serial killer, while the chase of the killer is not particularly interesting; it plays a secondary role to the cinematography of the mind.

Carl Stargher (D’Onofrio) is the psychopathic serial killer, who is diagnosed with a severe case of a rare schizophrenia. His thing is to kidnap women and place them in an underground bunker in a Plexiglas cell with just some food and a toilet. He has the cell setup to videotape them as he derives great pleasure watching the woman suffer while he has an automated water system that submerges them after 40 hours of this mind torture, and when they are dead he dumps their bleached bodies someplace where they can be easily found. He has just kidnapped Julia Hickson and has taken her to his secret place when the FBI, under the supervision of the workaholic Peter Novak (Vaughn), trace him through his albino dog and arrest him in his apartment. But he goes into a catatonic state and can’t be awakened to tell them where he is keeping Julia. The FBI playing against time, desperately ask the experimental scientists to help them and Catherine agrees to get into the killer’s head; even though, this is a more dangerous task than what she usually does.

When Catherine experiences some danger in the killer’s head, Peter joins her on the experimental journey and when he comes back to earth he finds a clue where the killer got his water system from and follows that lead the usual way the FBI doggedly operates. Meanwhile Catherine realizes that she is pressed for time to locate the hideout so she reverses the process and has the killer enter her mind, which is a perilous journey since it is easy to lose track of reality this way. A series of Frances Bacon-like images are conjured up along with a multiple score of other very artfully manifested designs, including Catherine going into a mind cell as she eerily probes the killer’s memory bank when he was an abused child at the hands of his tyrannical father.

The main focus is on the visual journey itself, therefore the actors are mostly asked to blend in and not steal the scenery from the visuals. It is something they successfully do. Jennifer Lopez is surprisingly credible as a therapist and the one the film hinges on to take us on this mind trip; Vince Vaughn plays his low-key role in an expressively adequate manner; while Vincent D’Onofrio elicits some sympathy for being a victim of child abuse and is also seen as an over-the-top psycho, someone who is capable of torturing women for no logical reasons. D’Onofrio is so strange, that he is most comfortable when he is suspended in air or has hooks sticking in his back. But one is always reminded that the actors are not as important as the cinematography is, as the film always returns to the visualizations of the mind to keep the intensity going. The film had enough visual material to keep you looking at it and wondering what does it all mean since it wasn’t a very frightening serial killer picture, and its mind explorations did not take us down some unmarked Jungian trail. It ends up by having the hero rescue the heroine in the nick of time, allowing the film to wend its way back into the conventional way serial killer films usually conclude. Perhaps, with a more razor-sharp story and requiring more from the capable cast the film could have lived up to its visualizations and have been a masterpiece; instead it settles for being an engrossing film that is very entertaining, a film that certainly sets a new high standard for photography.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”