as reviewed by Skylaire Alfvegren
My God, what a crushingly beautiful, dagger-twisting-in-the-heart film. But which God do we thank for it? Director Tarsem Singh (best known for his memorable, color-saturated Levis spots and music videos) is Indian. In a film about slipping into the mind of a schizophrenic serial killer, he manages to boomerang between Eastern symbolism and Catholic imagery without missing a beat.
There are, of course, plenty of jarring shots, because The Cell is as futuristic and gruesome as a psychological thriller can get. The premise gets into serious John Lilly territory–Lilly is the scientist who believes he has psychically connected with dolphins and otherworldly entities by floating in an isolation tank on ketamine, whose exploits were fictionalized in Ken Russell's Altered States.
Lilly-like experiments are being carried out between empathic ex-social worker Catherine (Jennifer Lopez) and a comatose schizophrenic boy, under the direction of scientists Miriam Kent (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) and Henry West (Dylan Baker, best known as the pedophile in Todd Solodnz' Happiness). Through brain mapping and psychotropic drugs, Catherine is able to enter the subconscious mind of her patient.
Meanwhile, FBI agent Peter Novak (Vince Vaughn) is hot on the trail of Carl Stargher (Vincent D'Onofrio), a serial killer who has left a string of dead blonde women all over southern California. When the FBI finally traps him, Stargher's own rare form of schizophrenia is triggered, leaving the killer in a catatonic state from which he'll never awake. Unfortunately, his last victim is believed to be alive and Peter must find a way to discover where Stargher is holding her. Novak's only recourse is to airlift Stargher to the research center where Catherine must try to connect with the killer in time to save the girl.
Thankfully, Singh gets the gratuitous Jennifer Lopez ass shots out of the way early on. Wandering through the mazes of Stargher's subconscious, Lopez' uses her rare ability to blend sex and sympathy (as she did in Out of Sight) to coax both the frightened little boy and the demonic adult out to communicate.
Stargher's mind is a twisted, phantasmagorical kingdom–the chambers of horror he endured as a child as well as the ones he built as an adult. Singh cribs the fantasy sequences of Brazil and the visual opulence of Ken Russell's '70s films while managing to maintain his own incomparable style. (Singh is responsible for some of the only memorable images ever aired on MTV, and incorporates plenty of stuff you'll recognize from big city modern art museums as well.)
Singh's fantastical imagery–religious, surreal, gruesome and gorgeous–would not be half as compelling if Singh didn't have the sensitivity to tell Stargher's story in its entirety. Because as you follow Catherine through the corridors of the killer's mind, you feel pain. His pain. The Cell is one of the most visually stunning films in years, but more importantly, it treats mental illness, even the kind that leads men to keep decapitated heads in their freezers, as something more than a scenario to exploit in a movie.