The Cell
Top Ten List: #4 of 2000 (U.S. releases)
Top Ten List: #7 of 2000 (world premieres)
Click Here for the Top 100 Films of the 00s
Director: Tarsem Singh. Cast: Jennifer Lopez, Vince Vaughn, Vincent D'Onofrio, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Dylan Baker, Jake Weber, Tara Subkoff, Patrick Bauchau, Jake Thomas, John Cothran, Jr. Screenplay: Mark Protosevich.

Photo © 2000 New Line Cinema
I first saw The Cell in its initial theatrical run in the late fall of 2000, and it prompted two major reactions. On the one hand, I loved the film for its visual daring, its astute self-commentary, and its surprising ethical and emotional resonance. On the other, I felt uncomfortable, almost guilty, for so gleefully relishing a film that is shot through not only with the pain of its characters but with some of the most dreadful, graphically disquieting images of torture and trauma ever recorded in a fiction film. I cannot imagine that anyone is surprised that The Cell ignited a particularly loud outcry from the politicians, parents, and other protesters who have demanded, with obvious justification, that Hollywood exercise more discipline in its depictions of violence and horror. Nonetheless, though The Cell probably offers more extreme images than any major film since David Cronenberg's Crash, both films earn their right to shock and provoke by telling coherent, intelligent stories about sexuality, violence, and trauma. In fact, The Cell is even more indelible and accomplished than Crash—an amazing, courageous, and thoroughly dark visualization of what the inside of a deeply troubled mind might look like. Then again, one of the most startling assertions of The Cell is that the inner landscapes of a killer's brain might not be any less troubling, in their way, than the minds of the doctors and policemen who pursue him.

The first sign of The Cell's stalwart intelligence is that it doesn't waste a lot of time or energy "convincing" us of the details of its patently absurd scenario. Dylan Baker and Marianne Jean-Baptiste, best known from Happiness and Secrets & Lies respectively, play scientists in charge of an experimental, psychotherapeutic technology by which a specially trained case worker can "enter" the mind of a schizophrenic and/or comatose patient. Once arrived in the "inner world" of the patient, the health professional can decipher the source of the sufferer's anguish by befriending his or her alter ego and observing the stylized, dreamlike landscapes through which they represent their memories and hurts. Already, we sense a contradiction: how exactly is understanding the victim's psychic pain capable of relieving the biomedical causes of a vegetative state? Schizophrenia, at least according to the movie, is caused by a virus. Still, not only does The Cell blithely pass over this paradox—if anything in this movie can be called "blithe"—but a major theme of the picture is the blurring of seeming binaries: mental/biological, healing/hurt, pathological/normal, viewer/viewed, good/evil.

Baker and Jean-Baptiste jointly selected Catherine Deane, a social worker played by Jennifer Lopez, to perform the psychic travels required by their controversial "treatment." Though Catherine lacked the medical expertise of other applicants, she was selected for her unfakeable ability to relate to her patients. Lopez, an actress destined to be underrated the longer she embarrasses herself in her musical career, contributes a touching, deceptively fierce performance in the starring role, one which makes the medical premise seem less improbable than it otherwise might. Her soft voice and beatific expressions not only seem appropriately reassuring to her disturbed clientèle, but her large features ably reflect the vast array of emotions—bemusement, pity, terror, confusion—that are aroused by what she "sees" in the heads of her two patients, Edward Baines and Carl Stargher. Edward, a young English boy, is fairly unthreatening, and his "treatment" by Lopez comprises The Cell's opening sequence. The boy's mindscape is a vast, arid desert—the dunes of Namibia provided the filming locations—and, except for a few jolting images, Catherine's journeys through that desert pass without major event or disruption.

Not so with Carl Stargher, who easily qualifies as one of the most grotesquely methodical serial killers in the cinema's long, sordid history in that milieu. Played by Men in Black and Full Metal Jacket's Vincent D'Onofrio, Stargher initially drives a police-investigation plot separate from the goings-on in Catherine's lab. He is the perpetrator of seven murders that have baffled and disgusted the FBI: in each case, the bodies of the attractive female victims are found drowned, stripped, and bleached, so that their grey-white skin, pale irises, and brittle, yellow hair resemble dolls. The movie's images of these women, as well as those of Stargher's apprehension and desecration of them, are so repulsive that the director, a first-time filmmaker named Tarsem Singh, had better have a reason to be assaulting us with them. Rest assured, though, that he does. After a few important developments, The Cell's two plots intersect. Stargher undergoes a violent, paralyzing seizure mere minutes before he is apprehended by federal agents, who thereafter need Catherine to "enter" the killer's dormant brain and attempt to discover the whereabouts of his latest victim. Because Stargher's torture devices consist of automated technology, the woman he most recently kidnapped will die in 40 hours if her whereabouts are not discovered. Catherine may believe she is entering Stargher as a counselor, a comforter; the FBI agents, led by Vince Vaughn (Psycho, The Lost World: Jurassic Park), view her instead as a sort of emergency forensic spelunker—excavating information, at whatever cost, in time to save a missing girl.

From this moment, everything that transpires in The Cell is an astonishment, visually, narratively, and thematically. Catherine ventures so deeply into Stargher's psyche that her supervisors fear she will be unable to return. They have to press their complicated neurological devices, unproven as they are, to even riskier limits by sending Peter Novak, the Vaughn character, into Stargher's mind. Once transported into that terrain, Peter is to "protect" the only woman who has ever successfully taken the journey. And what an appalling, merciless terrain it is. The Cell outdoes every cinematic extravaganza of recent years, even The Matrix and Julie Taymor's bold, underseen Titus, in mounting dense, opulent spectacles that defy description. (I suspect they will also defy the abilities of video and even DVD to convey them, so run to the theater if the film is playing anywhere near you.) In Stargher's mind alone, The Cell offers at least a dozen images I doubt I will ever forget: a Khan-like emperor with purple satin capes that whip around the entire perimeter of his ten-story throne room; a horse that is vivisected by huge panes of glass, through which its still-beating heart can be glimpsed; a ceiling-sized chandelier built of lambent coins and seashells; an infinite panorama of arid, dark grey furrows, where parched, open-mouthed women sit in stony expectation of some unseen imminence in the dark sky. These scenes don't even begin to suggest the most brutal of The Cell's visions; Catherine's reluctant walk through a gallery of Stargher's reassembled victims truly begs the question of what an audience can be asked to endure.

However, I think critics have both misunderstood and vastly misserved The Cell by variously denouncing it as robotic collage, prurient sensationalism, or undisciplined cruelty. True, in both pictorial and structural terms, Singh's movie would not be imaginable without Artaud, Bacon, Bösch, Dalý, Dante, and scores of other figures in Western art history, much less the many touchstones of East Asian and South Asian visual and musical tradition which supply The Cell with some of its most potent audio-visual inspirations. Certainly, though, the enactors of The Cell's stunning mise-en-scène are of estimable pedigree. Eiko Ishioka, one of the film's two credited costume designers, is not only a celebrated artist in her own right but the Oscar-winning creator of Bram Stoker's Dracula's inimitable cloaks, gowns, and armors. The Cell gives her and its other designers, including art director Tom Foden, seemingly limitless opportunities to realize their wildest conceptions, and yet the movie does not lack important guiding principles and boundaries. For example, while some viewers have chortled at the exaggerated Madonna-whore dualism that marks Catherine's appearances in several fantasy sequences, The Cell very deliberately means to expose that it is Catherine and Peter themselves, both well-intentioned caregivers working immeasurably out of their league, who view themselves in these reductive lights. In fact, one of the most frightening revelations of the movie is that Catherine, in her own mind, tends to view everyone as a pure savior, a pure innocent, a pure devil. Her patients may be troubled, even pathological, but at least they perceive human beings in much more complex detail than the medical professional seeking to "help" them.

Furthermore, to the extent that The Cell is an unabashed pastiche of countless artistic influences, the film takes time to demonstrate that all visual "art," ranging from cinema to the hidden tableaux of the imagination, inevitably absorb and reconstitute images passed on from the wider culture. Remembered scenes and art objects are as decisive as traumatic events in the ongoing shaping of these characters' psyches. It is additionally telling, and further proof that The Cell is more than an unbridled experiment in fantasy, that the film's "real-world" sequences are as smartly, specifically executed as the lavish Jungian set-pieces. For instance, the jagged modern edifice of Catherine's lab quietly makes the point that popular aesthetic sensibilities are not necessarily less dramatic or perverse than the "outrageous" architectures of a very sick man's subconscious. The electronic and suspension-based gadgetry by which Lopez performs her miraculous voyages unmistakably resemble Stargher's own methods of fetishizing his victims' bodies and the space that separates him from them.

Finally, in its ceaseless metaphors to filmmaking and filmgoing—the mirror through which Lopez and her supervisors observe one another, the white slab on which Stargher treats his victims, and the plexiglass "cell" in which the women unwittingly wait to be drowned all look like movie screens—director Singh and cinematographer Paul Laufer never stop reminding us that all the major themes of the movie (curiosity, voyeurism, horror, heroism, naïveté) are all definitive, inextricable components of movie-watching itself. The resultant chain of associations among cinema, psychology, technology, and voyeuristic violence is not just an idle gesture or hackneyed ploy on the part of the filmmakers. The Cell actually ventures toward some difficult and thorny ethical dilemmas: here we have a film in which the audience comes to desire the saving of a serial killer's life, rather than the extinguishing of it. We also receive plenty of evidence that Catherine and Peter, perhaps inevitably, pursue their caretaking and crime-fighting careers in response to private demons and obsessions; does such personal investment, however, prompt them to make blind, indefensible decisions, to harm the people them mean to protect? The final sequences of The Cell are an emotional corker, and not for the reasons you think they will be.

In short, The Cell is tense, well-acted, morally complex, aesthetically sophisticated, brilliantly shot and edited, smartly self-reflexive, and emotionally shattering. Yet, as amazed and pleased as I was to see a Hollywood movie achieve so many of cinema's highest potentials, I felt (and continue to feel) major qualms about the place of this movie in a commercial market, and the way in which it is destined to be received. Clearly, this film has no business being rated anything beneath an NC-17, and I have to assume that its $65 million take at American box offices depended on viewers more interested in gory thrills than in critiques of those thrills. One cannot hold The Cell accountable, however, for the lurid way in which many audiences will no doubt respond to it. However satisfying of baser appetites, The Cell is a stunning piece of art that will hopefully be appreciated as such after the furors of public debate and of the studio's commercial interests have receded into history. A–

(in September 2000: A)

Academy Award Nominations:
Best Makeup: Michèle Burke & Edouard F. Henriques

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