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Nightmares And Dreams In The Cell (2000)

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Back when everyone was discussing Inception, the conversation over at Asking The Wrong Questions strayed onto The Cell, Tarsem Singh’s debut film. It is a film I’ve always regarded fondly but it got short shrift in the comments there so I thought perhaps it was time for me to watch it again. It lived up to my memories but I would caution against anyone buying the 2001 Region 2 DVD because it is simply the worst transfer I’ve ever seen, not because the picture quality is poor (although it ain’t great) but because they’ve some how got the aspect ratio wrong so that even in widescreen the edges of the screen are cropped.

Anyway, in that thread Raz Greenberg said: “I have no argument with you about The Cell being a beautiful-looking film – it’s just a shame that the visuals were wasted on such a dumb script that ripped off pretty much every other significant serial-killer film, and offered no surprises or excitement.” I found this interesting because one of the reasons The Cell has always intrigued me is the way it stands the archetypal serial killer film on its head.

The first half of the Nineties were probably the golden age of the serial killer thriller with The Silence of the Lambs (1991) and Seven (1995) enjoying huge critical and commercial success and spawning many imitations. There were other important serial killer films of the period like Man Bites Dog (1992) but it was the thriller format of cat and mouse between insane genius and dedicated cop that captured the public imagination. By the time The Cell was released in 2000 the golden age was over and, with the boom in horror over the last decade, serial killers were back to being faceless, brainless axe-wielding hulks. There is a brilliantly idiotic vote on the cover of the DVD which describes the film as “Seven meets Seven for the post-Seven generation”. It is a meaningless piece of puff but Mark Protosevich’s screenplay is definitely in dialogue with that period.

The film opens with Catherine Deane (Jennifer Lopez) standing in a desert. She is a social worker (unusual enough) and the desert turns out to be part of the coma dream of a young patient who she is attempting to draw out of a catatonic state using dream technology. We then meet Carl Stargher (Vincent D’Onofrio) in another, real desert. There is a repeated symbolism to this but also a savage irony: Stargher is a killer who drowns his victims. In fact, he does a lot more than drown them; he psychologically tortures them, then drowns them, then enacts an elaborate sexual fetish every bit as ritualistic as John Doe or Buffalo Bill. It is eighteen minutes into the film before we meet the first law enforcement officer and even then we do not meet the lead FBI agent, Peter Novak (Vince Vaughn), until last of all. He observes that Stargher wants to be caught and only twelve minutes later at the half hour mark, he is. But before the police can even arrest him, he has already succumbed to a seizure brought on by his mental illness.

Stargher’s crimes are elaborate but he is not a genius; he doesn’t want to out smart the police, he wants to be stopped. When Deane enters his head to try and find the location of his final victim, the cat and mouse is emotional rather than intellectual. It also deviates from the standard serial killer film template in that beating the clock to save the missing girl is not her only goal. In fact, it is only after Novak, the law enforcement officer, joins her inside Stargher’s head that the location is deduced; Deane, the social worker, has become more concerned for Stragher himself. The narrative splits with Novak and Deane’s dual quest to saving themselves from despair by saving a life whilst achieving their professional goals given equal importance. When Deane is unable to succeed, she is utterly distraught. Very few film’s shed tears for their serial killers and this level of empathy and emotional complexity sets it apart.

It is probably fair to say that Singh’s primary interest is visual rather than narrative though. For his belated follow up, The Fall (2006), he wrote the script himself and reduced the real world to even more of a frame for his fantasies. And you certainly get the impression that regardless of whether it is a dream or a fantasy, it is the tableux that is of prime importance. Back on that thread, Abigail Nussbaum said:

I can’t think of another movie that goes as far as it does in representing the human unconscious as a wild, irrational space (though I haven’t seen Dark City). It is telling, though, that so much of its imagery is made up of quotes from surrealist, but consciously created, art.

The Cell is actually a less accurate representation of dreams than Inception or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I don’t think it’s realistic on that level any more than it captures the reality of the psychology of serial killers, but it is stunning, and comes closer to the popular concept of what dreams are like – or, more accurately, to dream as a literary conceit rather than a reality – than either of the other films.

There are quotes in the film’s dream – such as equestrian version of Damien Hirst’s The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living – but I wouldn’t say they dominated. If anything, religious imagery dominates but there is also a lot of Singh’s own strong asthetic sensibility in there. However, it is true that they aren’t much like real dreams. On that score, I would like to nominate the recently deceased Japanese director Satoshi Kon for Paprika (2006). The film was apparently an influence on Christopher Nolan but the dreamscapes of Inception turned out to be relatively staid whereas Kon manages to capture the organic chaos of dreaming.

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Written by Martin

31 August 2010 at 11:37

Posted in films, sf

Tagged with ,

3 Responses

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  1. I like The Cell, partly because Vincent D’Onofrio went full-on bonkers, and he also looks fabulous in it. FWIW I think dreams are more like The Cell than like Inception, but not that much like either.

    I don’t remember the plot of The Cell too well, but I remember the imagery, and I remember feeling sorry for the killer.

    I was describing to my son how I thought Inception should have been and he said I was describing Inland Empire, so that might be the film which really sets the standard for dream-in-film. I must watch it. I will look out for Paprika too.

    Alison

    31 August 2010 at 16:27

  2. It’s been a long time since I watched The Cell, and I don’t remember the beats of its plot, or even the details of its visuals, very well, but isn’t it possible that at least some of what you identify as a dismantling of the standard serial killer film template is actually mishandling of it? Introducing one of the main leads so late into the film, taking so long to establish the premise and get the actual business of exploring the killer’s brain going – these could be flaws in the script rather than deliberate choices.

    I do take your point, however, about the sympathy the film extends to the killer. Though it is surely significant that, as I recall, the killer is separated into two characters – the adult, played by D’Onofrio, remains a monster throughout, and it’s his child self, still reeling from abuse and tormented by his own grown-up, monstrous form, who is considered worth saving (for which read mercy-killing).

    Abigail

    1 September 2010 at 07:35

  3. It is possible I am giving them too much credit for actively deconstructing the genre but the outcome is the same regardless. And some of it clearly is conscious: the fact Deane is the main character rather than Novak, for example.

    I don’t think it does any time at all to establish the premise given that the premise is that there is a machine that allow you to enter someone’s head to perform therapy. Deane starts the film in the patient’s head, unable to help him, and ends it there, now able to help him. You could argue that the whole Stargher/Novak plot is just a trial she must overcome to gain the knowledge to save the boy. Even if you don’t go that far, the key information you need is introduced straight away.

    Stargher does separate into two halves inside his head – child and monster – but he also remains as a whole, adult version of himself who Deane is able interact with at certain moments. It is him she originally wants to save but when she can’t, yes, she tries to save the child by killing the monster. But the film denies this, says that they are both Stargher and you can’t just pick and choose the portion of the psyche you prefer and as a result she kills both halves of him simulataneously.

    Alison: I will have to get round to watching Inland Empire, I’m not sure why I haven’t already.

    Martin

    1 September 2010 at 09:34


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