The Cell (2000)
Director: Tarsem Singh
Screenwriter: Mark Protosevich
Starring: Jennifer Lopez, Vince Vaughn, Vincent D’Onofrio
When I scroll through streaming movies, I look for things I’ve never heard of. What usually gets me to click are the things that sound so ridiculous that I have to watch the trainwreck. When I came across The Cell, I was instantly intrigued. The image the streaming service presents is one of a guy with giant nipple rings and what appear to be droopy devil horns, and the logline describes a therapist entering the consciousness of a comatose serial killer; the image after clicking shows Jennifer Lopez in a feathery white dress standing next to a horse. It looks like a recipe for a hilariously bad tunr-of-the-century thriller trying to sell its silly premise on the backs of J-Lo, Vince Vaughn and Vincent D’Onofrio.
Somewhat surprisingly, the opening is reminiscent of Lawrence of Arabia – the camera shows a wavy, mirage-like figure approaching on horseback, riding through the desert in a series of landscape shots with the odd slow motion close up mixed in. When the horse stops, J-Lo smiles at the horse and it turns into a statue. This is the kind of thing I would have mercilessly mocked at one point, but I was so fascinated. These shots set the stage for a surreal film that expertly expresses the absurd appearance of dreams.
J-Lo is a psychotherapist using state-of-the-art technology to enter the subconscious of a child in a coma. The goal is to bring him back to consciousness by having him confront his fear, like exposure therapy directly in the brain. She hasn’t succeeded, and the child’s father threatens to pull the plug on the experiment if there continues to be a lack of results. Meanwhile, Vince Vaughn is an FBI serial killer expert hunting a man that drowns his victims. The killer, played by Vincent D’Onofrio, is a masochist obsessed with torturing women and turning them into real life dolls. When he’s finally apprehended, he suffers a cerebral infarction that is linked to his schizophrenia, sending him into a coma. It’s up to J-Lo to enter his twisted brain and save the latest victim.
There’s a brutality to the film that will capture any fan of serial killer thrillers. The killer has metal rings in his back and arms to suspend himself in a bizarre sexual ritual. It isn’t merely implied or sugar coated – the audience can see D’Onofrio’s flesh stretch like the stubborn cheese that won’t come off the bite of pizza you just took. His arm moves in a mastubatory motion as he listens to the video of his victim screaming for help. It’s disgusting and bold all at once; the sort of twisted moment required to one-up films like Se7en or Silence of the Lambs, and that successfully sets the stage for the sinister elements present in his mind.
Lopez embodies empathy and understanding. She’s able to find the softer parts of the killer’s subconscious that allow her to try and persuade the mind to give her what she needs. She’s capable of manipulation in a positive way by bringing images from reality into the dreams with her, allowing her to best control the situations she encounters. Vaughn’s agent is also communicative and patient, and their characters work well together. Excess conflict like different views on the efficacy of this kind of treatment between these characters could have been overbearing, and the dialogue and performances do a good job of presenting characters with slightly different worldviews (Vaughn does think insanity is an excuse for criminals) that don’t dwell on those differences, and deal with the issue at hand with appropriate urgency and teamwork.
While the plot isn’t particularly novel, the visual strength of the dreamscape will keep any viewer engaged. The special effects, which might otherwise be derided for how poorly they’ve aged, seamlessly flow into the surreal space. The sets are incredible and include locations that merge Saw with Andre Breton, impart the grandiosity of Intolerance, or recreate the artistic simplicity of a tarot card. The imagery used is unmistakably inspired by artists like Breton or Salvador Dali, using methods like juxtaposition of words and images, even in the realistic portions of the film (J-Lo asks her cat if he wants some milk followed by a cut to a dead woman emerging from a vat of bleach that hearkens to Un Chien Andalou), and editing of shots so they move at a slower or stuttering pace to immerse the audience into the subconscious world.
I think it’s easy for anyone to look at killers and think like Vince Vaughn; mental illness, abuse, and severe trauma are certainly not excuses for abhorrent actions. But that doesn’t mean we can dehumanize them and ignore their suffering. The film gives a shocking window into the mind of a fictional character that represents a small portion of the world that is incapable of controlling themselves and shows that there is still humanity located within that brain. When medical experts are able to work with those afflicted with the worst mental ailments it can help those that are on track to suffer the same fate, like the child Lopez works with in the beginning.
Going into The Cell, I expected something stupid, and it very easily could have been without the right visual artists at the helm. Instead, I got a gripping thriller that continually delivered visual shock and awe. Surreal works aren’t for everyone (the reviews were mixed, with only 45% of RT aggregated reviews on the positive side), but if you like really weird things that go all-in on the weirdness, The Cell is worth a watch.