DIRECTED BY: Tarsem Singh
FEATURING: Jennifer Lopez, Vince Vaughn, Vincent D’Onofrio
PLOT: To find the whereabouts of a serial killer’s impending victim, who is still alive in captivity, the FBI enlists the aid of a psychotherapy group that has the developed the technology to enter and explore the minds of others.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The Cell is a visually impressive movie that holds up pretty well after fifteen years. When not inside the mind of the killer, however, the story falls into the formulaic and serendipitous far too often.
COMMENTS: On the face of it, Tarsem Singh’s the Cell would seem an obvious candidate for Certification. The first long-form work of a music video director visually influenced by the likes of H.R. Giger and the Brothers Quay, it features a clip from Fantastic Planet and stars one of the stranger actors of the day (Vincent D’Onofrio). As far as the movie goes with these elements it plows heavily into weird spaces. However, the nightmarish set-pieces are tacked on to a standard serial killer/FBI pursuit procedural. (Or perhaps vice versa—the movie treads a fine line.)
The weird moments are a hoot to watch. Going all-out creepy with the sets and costume, the Cell has wonderful blasts of unsettling vignettes as it explores the mind of Carl Stargher (Vincent D’Onofrio), first by social worker-turned-psychotherapist Catherine Deane (Jennifer Lopez) and, after she gets sucked into that “reality,” by special agent Peter Novak (Vince Vaughn, in one of those “straight” roles I really wish he’d return to).The murderer’s mind is dominated by an entity that acts as the all-powerful king of this grim realm, but there is a flicker of humanity personified by a young boy who represents the vestiges of abused goodness inside. Killer Carl— a seriously unhinged man smashed to pieces by guilt over his past acts and his despair at having been so badly mistreated by his father—also appears in his own mind. (Having suffered from a viral schizophrenic disorder brought on by a particularly heartless baptism didn’t help things, either.)
But aside from split-open-but-living equines, macabre doll-people shadow boxes, obvious (but venerable) surrealist art nods, and a chilling performance from D’Onofrio as the mind’s King, you have perhaps the most run-of-the-mill crime thrillers imaginable. Stargher has been murdering for some time, and one suspects he wants to be caught, but the string of coincidences (albino German Shepherd purchased by the owner of just the right truck stands out as one of several examples) become unbelievable, to the point that the phrase “how convenient” can’t help but spring to mind.
That said, the movie is still pretty neat. Jennifer Lopez is somewhere between adequate and good in her role as a social worker. Her attempts to help a young troubled boy, Mister “E” (whose existence acts as the story’s frame around the frame), are touching. Vince Vaughn does the best he can with a one-dimensional character (his FBI agent apparently was originally a prosecutor who saw one-too-many baddies slip the noose because of good lawyering), and reminded me that he does his best work when not pushing for laughs.
Tarsem Singh’s visually striking opus from 2000 proves to be a decent effort as a qualifying time-trial. In 2006 he opted to go all-out, spending many millions of his own cash for the privilege, for his next movie, the Fall. Although the Cell does not quite hit the mark, there are those who feel his follow-up is a Certified contender; stay tuned.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY: