THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


The words I first think of to describe The Cell don't necessarily sound good: twisted, messed-up, bizarre. What these words fail to convey is that, in the proper context, they can be used as compliments. Yes, The Cell is twisted; one of the key characters is an eerily authentic psychopath who kidnaps and tortures women in shocking ways. The film is messed-up; we take a journey into the man's subconscious, where all kinds of gruesome images confront us. It is bizarre; most of the movie plays out in the deepest, most disturbed portions of the human psyche. Do the adjectives still sound negative? Let me clarify a little more. The Cell is a brilliantly visceral film that provokes not only thought, but wonder and awe as well. Being twisted, messed-up, and bizarre is what makes it so effective.

Vincent D'Onofrio plays Carl Stargher, a deranged killer who keeps his female victims in a glass cell. Periodically, water shoots out on the frightened women - a kind of sadistic water torture. Stargher is prepping them, cleansing them, to fulfill his darkest desires and fantasies. When he's ready for them to play their ultimate role, the water stays on until the women slowly drown. (What he does from there is pretty horrific, so be warned.) The FBI, lead by agent Peter Novak (Vince Vaughn) is on Stargher's trail. They finally catch him, but it's almost by accident; the psycho has fallen into a coma from which he's likely never to emerge. There is still a young woman being held in the cell, but the FBI doesn't know its location. Their bad guy is no longer in a state to tell them.

For help, Novak turns to Catherine Deane (Jennifer Lopez), a psychologist who is participating in an experimental new therapy program. Using specialized suits and computers, Catherine is able to enter the unconscious mind of her clients. Once there, she helps them deal with their innermost problems. Novak convinces her that she can enter Stargher's mind and access the location of the cell. There is, of course, a time limit, as the cell is due to start filling up with water within hours.

Jennifer Lopez enters the psyche of killer Vincent D'Onofrio in The Cell
The experiment works, but what Catherine finds inside the killer's head is disturbing. Director Tarsem Singh (a video director who made REM's "Losing My Religion" clip) employs a variety of visual, auditory, and stylistic effects to create a living nightmare. In his unconscious, Stargher imagines himself a devil king, complete with horns, dead eyes, and a voice so menacing it inspires chills. He rules over a kindgom in which mutilated women live in little boxes. Danger lurks at every turn and because the usual rules of logic and reason don't apply, anything can happen. Imagine the devil's id and you get an idea of what this world is like. Through the use of color tinting, digital sound, and production design, Tarsem (he usually goes by one name) puts the audience on edge. What happens in the killer's mind is strange enough; the look of The Cell adds an additional layer of disturbing unreality.

I wish I could find the words to accurately describe the experience of watching this film. However, it is such a visual piece of filmmaking that words could never fully bring an understanding of what Tarsem has done. If I told you that objects are constantly floating and shifting, that gravity reverses itself, that the alternately murky and bright colors combine in unsettling ways, you might not be able to feel the creepiness that The Cell so incessantly projects. This is truly a nightmare captured on celluloid, a disorienting plummet through pure hell.

The longer Catherine stays in Stargher's head, the more terrified she becomes. One of the things she encounters is the killer as a little boy. She slowly begins to develop an idea about the genesis of his dementia. She becomes so engrossed that the demonic Stargher captures her and begins to convert her into his evil plaything. Novak must then enter as well, to try to save her.

Although a good portion of The Cell takes place inside the human unconscious, it is much more than an exercise in visual design. What I liked was the manner in which the screenplay (by Mark Protosevich) suggests that good and evil wage war within our own psyches. Catherine becomes fascinated that this innocent little boy still resides somewhere inside the mind of a psychopath. She comes to believe that she can heal the child, thus gaining an understanding of what made him become such a demented adult. Last month, I complained about Disney's The Kid, which also dealt with attempts to heal the "inner child." That film conveniently brushed aside real adult issues. The Cell, on the other hand, recognizes that painful life experiences can turn nice kids into horrible grown-ups. This is a much more provocative take on the idea, with a glimmer of hope at its center.

The Cell works on a number of levels. It's a great looking movie that surprises at every turn. I never knew what I was going to see next. It is a well-acted film, with solid performances from Lopez and Vaughn. I'm especially pleased that Vincent D'Onofrio accepted the role of the killer. He's one of the few actors who can bring off such intense madness without overacting. It is a picture that has big ideas to explore, resulting in a unique moviegoing experience that doesn't vanish from your thoughts five minutes after you leave the theater. I know some people will absolutely hate this movie. They will hate it because it's disturbing. They will hate it because it's graphic. Some will hate it because they don't understand it. Personally, I think this is a great film - one that I will see multiple times.

The Cell understands that the human psyche is like an onion, revealing more layers each time the top one is peeled away. In some people, these layers may reveal horrific turmoil. And beneath all the turmoil, there just may be an explanation for the kind of brutality society often finds unexplainable.

( out of four)

The Cell is rated R for bizarre violence, sexual imagery & violence. The running time is 1 hour and 46 minutes.
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