Cell, The (United States, 2000)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

New Line Cinema faces a monumental feat in attempting to market The Cell, a decidedly non-mainstream serial killer thriller that has the sensibilities of an art film. Visually enticing and intellectually demanding, The Cell takes viewers deep into the nightmarish realm of a killer's mind, exposing audiences to a cacophony of dissonant scenes and images that are at times horrific and disturbing, but are never gratuitous. And, although the film has a clear narrative trajectory, its most compelling aspects are those that are the most disjointed.

Hollywood has always been fascinated by serial killers, and the box office popularity of such films has encouraged a steady stream of them. From the pointless splatter of the Friday the 13th series to the taut tension of The Silence of the Lambs, mass murder means mass dollars. But The Cell breaks new ground. Although the story recounts the pursuit and capture of a serial killer, the meat of the film contends with exploring and understanding his mind and motivations. In many ways, The Cell is more of a benighted fantasy than a thriller, and the way it toys with the line between dreams and waking recalls the recent wave of virtual reality films (which has included, amongst other entries, The Matrix).

At the heart of The Cell lies a new kind of technology that allows one person to enter the subconscious of another. The intent of the procedure is to facilitate the psychological analysis of deeply disturbed individuals who are unable to participate in traditional sessions due to catatonia. A team of two scientists, Miriam Kent (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) and Henry West (Dylan Baker), and one psychotherapist, Catherine Deane (Jennifer Lopez), are the only ones skilled in using the equipment - they have been experimenting on a young boy for the past 18 months. But, when approached by a pair of FBI agents, Peter Novak (Vince Vaughn) and Gordon Ramsey (Jake Weber), with a proposal, they find the challenge impossible to resist.

Novak and Ramsey have just captured serial killer Carl Stargher (Vincent D'Onofrio), who has murdered seven times and has recently kidnapped an eighth victim. When the FBI locates Stargher, he has suffered some sort of massive psychological collapse and is in a coma (or, as one doctor puts it, he's having a dream from which he will never awaken). The location of his newest captive is unknown, but the FBI is aware that she has been placed in a glass tank that will automatically fill with water in 40 hours and drown her - unless Catherine can enter Stargher's mind, make contact with him, earn his trust, and learn the location of victim #8.

In terms of visual style, The Cell is among the most innovative motion pictures since 1998's pair of Pleasantville and What Dreams May Come. However, while both of those movies relied heavily on computer-generated technology, first-time director Tarsem Singh balances special effects with old-fashioned photographic chicanery. For some scenes, particularly those inside Stargher's mind, he desaturates the color to the point where everything is almost black-and-white. On other occasions, he deepens and enriches hues. He also employs different film stocks and frequently skips frames, creating a momentary sense of disorientation. The intent of all this is to present an unstable visual palette, and it works. Of course, Singh doesn't ignore computer imaging - there are plenty of examples of it to be found, from the wormhole-like tunnels that Catherine travels through to enter Stargher's mind to the improbable shots of pink dogwoods growing in the middle of a desert, but the complexity of the computer work does not approach that of either of the aforementioned 1998 features.

The Cell uses its thriller backdrop to explore the psychology of serial killers. Singh balances shots of Stargher's torturous actions with equally hard-to-watch images of him being abused as a child - the trauma which triggered his killing spree. Yet, unlike in the average movie of the genre, there is little in the way of traditional action - no chase sequences, shoot-outs, or other, similar staples. The main source of tension springs from the question of whether Catherine will be able to maintain her own identity while attempting to reach Stargher, or whether she will be assimilated into his madness. And, as the film races towards its climax, editing plays a crucial part in ratcheting up the level of suspense; Singh relentlessly cuts back and forth between Novak's desperate attempts to save victim #8 and Catherine's struggle to reclaim whatever humanity may remain to Stargher.

Lately, Jennifer Lopez has been in the news for all the wrong reasons, but her off-screen personal problems have not impaired her ability to arrest the camera's attention. In The Cell, she does not smolder the way she did in Out of Sight, but she gets an opportunity to display a broad range - from a hard-working therapist to a regal fantasy figure in white to a drugged out succubus to a leather-clad martial arts babe. Lopez rolls from personality to personality without missing a beat. She's the glue that holds the film together, even though there are a couple of stretches when she's absent for significant chunks of time.

Vince Vaughn, not normally the most emotive of performers, is adequate for the part here - Novak is designed to be a low-key individual. Vincent D'Onofrio is almost unrecognizable beneath an unruly mop of blond hair, but his portrayal of a psychopath is one of the most disturbing since Anthony Hopkins chilled audiences as Hannibal the Cannibal. The supporting cast includes British actress Marianne Jean-Baptiste, who earned an Oscar nomination as the daughter in Mike Leigh's Secrets and Lies, and Dylan Baker, who played the pedophile father in Happiness.

The Cell becomes the first serial killer feature in a long time to take the genre in a new direction. Not only does it defy formulaic expectations, but it challenges the viewer to think and consider the horrors that can turn an ordinary child into an inhuman monster. There are no easy answers, and The Cell doesn't pretend to offer any. Instead, Singh presents audiences with the opportunity to go on a harrowing journey. For those who are up to the challenge, it's worth spending time in The Cell.

Cell, The (United States, 2000)

Director: Tarsem Singh
Cast: Jennifer Lopez, Vince Vaughn, Vincent D'Onofrio, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Jake Weber, Dylan Baker
Screenplay: Mark Protosevich
Cinematography: Paul Laufer
Music: Howard Shore
U.S. Distributor: New Line Cinema
Run Time: 1:45
U.S. Release Date: 2000-08-18
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1