A journey through cinema can never be comprehensive without emphasizing—necessitating, even—the occasional excursion beyond the beaten path of known entries and safe choices. Usually, these are your classics, blockbusters, tent poles, cult favorites that form the major stops along that road. And any detour into unfamiliar territory could lead to either the obscure gems, duds, indies or striking discoveries. The Cell (2000) is a shining example of the latter as it embodies the novelty of roadside attractions—if one were to borrow from established analogy—and the bizarre curiosity they pose. It’s not notable for much aside from its visuals and that the late Ebert championed Tarsem’s bold vision (see here and here).
We observe Catherine Deane (Lopez), a child psychologist, toiling doggedly to coax Edward, a comatose boy, out of his slumber using novel VR technology that transplants one person into another’s mind; hers into his. Concurrently, federal agent Novak (Vaughan) and company uncover a female body in the desert and later close in on the serial killer responsible, Carl Stargher (D’Onofrio). Except while apprehended, Stargher enters into the same schizophrenia-induced coma, burying all leads to the whereabouts of his captured victim. His schtick is getting off to footage of his victims drowning in a glass tank (the titular cell) linked to a timer filling it slowly with water. It’s a depraved S&M ritual involving bleaching their dead bodies, laying them on a slab, and suspending himself by hooks over them.
A clever distillation of The Silence of The Lambs‘ (1990) ritualized MO, Hellraiser‘s (1987) sadomasochism, The Matrix‘ (1999) alternate reality, with a dash of Stephen King’s Rose Madder‘s fantastical quest, the film stands out thanks to an elaborate high-concept premise. If consciousness could be captured visually, how would it look? Frenetic? Still? Fuzzy? Lucid? Essentially three films are presented—the virtual reality technology, the fantasy realm it opens to, and the ticking clock for a serial killer’s latest victim. Tarsem slips into and out of each thread seamlessly but the high water moments are found in his harrowing renditions of the deeper recesses of a disturbed subconscious when the FBI enlist Catherine’s help to fish for a lead inside the sleeping killer’s mind.
A noticeable weakness is a script that fails to articulate genuine shock at the sights beheld inside the crazed killer’s mind and the intricacies of the synaptic process. It’s light on technical complexity, and its execution lacks the originality and verve to elevate it above ambitious brainstorming material, though it is superbly carried by D’Onofrio’s operatic interpretation of villainy. Costumes and backdrops play a significant role in heightening—without elaborating—artistic intent, and it is clear that the vistas and props are the work of the host’s mind projecting its awareness onto dimensional space. In fairness, Tarsem beautifully pairs those dazzling images with a bleak ambiance and a desolate milieu to portray a dazzling tapestry of hope, despair, then hope, again.
Stargher’s mind, where a majority of the film is spent, is a spectacle of the grotesque. A parade for the profane. A canvas of a tortured psyche where the brush strokes are subject to the whims of a deranged mind. The results are a world that depicts the unlit reaches of the cerebrum, and tinges it with the perverse extension of the killer’s fetish and buried traumas. It is quite the psychological baggage, laid bare across barren industrial backdrops, abandoned ruins and imposing structures with impossible architecture. And to find clues on the kidnapped woman’s whereabouts, Catherine first encounters Stargher as a boy before both are stalked by his current self. His appearance and mannerisms are flush with imageries of morbid royalty. It’s an exaggerated psychosexual ego trip manifested in elaborate costumes and cavernous courts.
Rotundas, chambers, dungeons, crypts, arenas and cisterns—Stargher’s mind captures uninhabitable spaces void of occupants other than host and guest. Supporting characters serve as either ornamentation (Stargher’s victims) or exposition (his family). These places are inhospitable quarters; archaic edifices reserved for public use, images that are the purview of host’s fancy. Resembling ruins from antiquity, some of these places are of a staggering eccentricity, and a startling obsolescence is lent to their minimalism of habitation and utility. Perhaps Stargher’s desire to lord solely over what he loathes and can’t obtain, is laid in plain terms. But I was, most particularly, in awe of the intimate isolation of those outre presentations.
But instead of resembling an odyssey, The Cell evokes the epic without explicitly aiming for it, only to fail and land several strata below its launch point. It doesn’t illuminate any deep insights into any of its topics. It even dares to portray a murderer in a sympathetic light, first, pointing to child abuse as the root for his retribution and misogyny. The reasons for the disparate landscapes its synaptic method projects are never explained but it admirably endeavors to capture the fleeting train of thought and the stream of consciousness’ erratic flow. Its examination is perfunctory—simply the pretense justifying its the preference of style over substance. Legal loopholes and ethical ramifications abound. And there is a sudden twist where Catherine falls under King Stargher’s spell and can be seen to resemble a concubine—a lure for Novak to enter the machine—that gets left out of the official report. The results are clunky overall but interesting as an experiment of pushing the medium’s boundaries to the limits of their expressive application.
Sometimes rowdy, sometimes pouty.