Director: Tarsem Singh
When I went into “The Cell”, I had just spent a week enthralled in the reading of Thomas Harris’ “Hannibal”, which outdoes the nightmarish visions of “The Silence of the Lambs”, with such grotesque things as man-eating pigs to bowels dropping from bodies as they hang and a couple discussing with a lobotomized guest as they eat slices of his brain with croutons. Well, this is nothing compared to the hell that Indian director Tarsem unleashes upon us in his feature debut, a movies as unsettling as it is aesthetically impressive. We’ve all seen some amazing looking flicks through the years, but few on this level.
Jennifer Lopez stars as Catherine, a social worker/child therapist hired by a rich industrialist to try and bring back his son from a catatonic coma. The film is set in the not too distant future, and technology has made it possible to connect two minds together. Therefore, Catherine is able to actually reach the kid in the imaginary world he’s stuck in and work on returning him to reality. In another field, we meet Peter (swingin’ Vince Vaughn), a grungey but bright FBI agent who’s been losing many a sleep night tracking a schizo serial killer (Vincent D’Onofrio, playing even more disturbed than in Full Metal Jacket) who kidnaps young women, keeps them prisoner in a glass cell for 40 hours, then proceeds to drown them, bleach them and have his way with their corpses. Yikes indeed. He’s gotten away with 7 victims left dead, but sloppiness or a desire to get caught have made him leave traces which make it easy for the FBI to catch his ass. Unfortunately, in doing so, they shocked him into a coma, and he was the only one who knew where his 8th kidnappee is kept hidden before her cell fills up with water.
By now, you probably have an idea where this is going and chances are you’re right: Catherine will be enlisted by Peter to enter the mind of the killer to find out where the girl is before he’s too late, and all hell will break loose… Intriguing plot, isn’t it? Sure, it mixes “Se7en” leftovers with a dash of “The Matrix” and a taste of “What Dreams May Come”, but the movie remains wildly original if only for the unique sights it packs. Tarsem takes a rather by the number gritty crime tale and uses it as a canvas to paint a series of surreal tableaux ranging from Goth chic to Magritte-style head trips and religious icons. Even outside the “mindscape” sequences, the film is visually stunning. Tarsem takes things like an helicopter landing, a police raid or Jennifer Lopez in her underwear lighting up a spliff and walking to the fridge and gives them a look and a rhythm different from what you’d usually see. He does marvels with editing and gets the best from his lighting, costume and production design crew. There’s no doubt that the man’s an artist.
Some might say that the style that was plenty in, say, his award-winning video for REM’s “Losing My Religion” isn’t enough to sustain a full length feature. In a way, “The Cell” is indeed a triumph of style over substance, with the psychology being reduced to, as Vaughn’s character puts it, “the same old bullshit excuses” that childhood traumas are what turns one into a sick necrophiliac killer. Then again, this will hardly matter when you’ll be staring with your jaw hanging at the marvels Tarsem fills the screen with, from a horse ride through the desert to a “2001”-style light show to a showdown between the Virgin Mary and a creature of pure evil. Oh, and did I mention the “gut puller”? Or the near-snuff film feel of the video playbacks of girls drowning? In the end, maybe “The Cell” isn’t about much, and it could have been deeper and all but as it stands, it’s still a must-see.