THE CELL (Tarsem Singh, 2000)

When “The Cell” was released in the early summer of 2000, a lot of the critics that disapproved of the film did so by using terms such as “unpleasant” or “all style, no substance”. Actually, the former is true and I fail to see how it can be used as negative when reviewing this film in general. “The Cell” is a grotesque experience, but what else would you expect when a film is about a woman entering the mind of a seriously disturbed serial killer?

At its center, “The Cell” has the serial killer thriller formula going, one similar to “The Silence of the Lambs”. But the twist in this circumstance is the killer, Carl Stargher (Vincent D’Onofrio), is caught, and in a coma, while his most recent victim is hidden away, awaiting a slow death by a technological device Carl has created for the women he kills. Because of his vegetative state, child psychologist Catherine Deane (Jennifer Lopez) is approached to enter the mind of the killer to find the victim’s whereabouts.

What is brilliant about “The Cell”’s approach to its story is that it doesn’t overplay it. The film is set in a futuristic America, but its not portrayed in the norm. There are no flying cars, just as the technology that has advanced (what helps Catherine go into the minds of her patients to help them) is not being shown all over the place like a science fiction film usually would. (Don’t expect virtual advertisements, etc.) Another interesting instance to take note of is a personal scene involving Catherine at home, smoking a joint and watching Rene Laloux’s “Fantastic Planet”. There are not big-budget production values here. No doors operating with keypads, or big-screen television sets. The film decides to stay cool about itself, and present its real world with a strong level of authenticity instead of eye-candy awe.

Not to worry, there is plenty of eye-candy in the film, no matter how dark and ugly the proceedings become. But each scene uses its visuals to tell the story of Carl Stargher, as opposed to being brainless visual orgies. And its also interesting to realize that the demented world of Carl is composed of many palettes of art and religion, just as much as the man’s own history of abuse. And its also interesting to see how director Tarsem Singh approaches the realism of Carl’s state by not blaming his history, but instead by examining the pure fragility of the human condition. Detective Peter Novak (Vince Vaughn) is the complete opposite of Carl Stargher, even though both have a similar level of violent history.

“The Cell” dissects the levels of a serial killer in ways no other film has achieved. Paralleling the construction of said levels through the reality of Carl’s mind instead of sugar-coating it, and approaching him without any sense of pity. It will give you the chills how Singh portrays Carl without labeling him just an evil villain. He’s still human, and “The Cell” understands this, and gets it right. And his construction of mind through the memory of art is absolutely brilliant, and this, like the science fiction element of plot, is treating with respect to the complexity of the story instead of acting as a plot device for all that happens.

The performances in the film are very good, from Jennifer Lopez’s subtly-played Catherine to Vincent D’Onofrio’s brutal representation of a damaged man and his inner demons. There is supporting work from the brilliant Dylan Baker and Marianne-Jean Baptiste, as well as Vince Vaughn giving his best performance. Vaughn plays his detective agent in true Hollywood manner, but builds it on a more sensitive and personal note and never loses credibility as a true person.

It takes multiple viewings to piece together the brilliance of “The Cell” – the images, the comments on the thin line between art and the human soul, as well as a comment on the benefits and the dangers of technology depending on who is at the center of using it. “The Cell” is one of the very best films of 2000, artistically so and psychologically so. Its what many Hollywood-produced thrillers fail to be: a highly original, emotionally moving masterpiece.

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~ by jerkwoddjh on July 15, 2009.

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