19 October, 2010

The Cell (2000)

The Cell starts out with a fascinating premise - experimental technology that allows one to dive into the dreamspace of a coma patient, presumably in the hopes of being able to coax the patient out of the coma from within, by confronting their demons and rearranging their mental states. Throw in a deranged serial killer and a race against time, and you've got a compelling plot. And the artistry of the dreamspaces fills in the gaps and fleshes out the surreal atmosphere of the film.

Said dreamspaces are indeed a wonder to behold. They add a lot of color (proverbially and literally), giving the film a fantasy element to counterbalance the very real horror at the heart of the story. And that horror comes in the form of a disturbed SM freak, who enjoys the torture of drowning young women in a custom-made sealed underground cell. After years of following him, the FBI manages to finally track him down, only to lose him to a sudden attack of a rare form of schizophrenia that puts him in a coma. Meanwhile, he had just picked up his latest victim the night before, and she has hours to live, if the FBI can't find her. Trouble is, the killer is the only one who knows where she is, and he's definitely not talking - whether he'd want to or not. And so they must enter his mind and coax out his secret.

It's hard to criticize this film, because it's very unique and very dreamy, and is such a great premise. I like the idea of "going into a serial killer's mind", as morbid as that is. I'm fascinated with the concept of the "origin of evil", and what drives a person to commit unspeakable acts. Yet I felt a little unfulfilled on that count. There were some pretty creepy scenes, but I had the feeling that they didn't go quite deep enough into the killer's darkness, or stay there long enough. In the end, I think the fantasy won out over the horror, though horrific it was, and though the fantasy was impressive.

One part that captivated me was a discussion during a break from mind-diving, between the trained coma-counselor and the FBI agent. He explained the killer's traumatic history, and she expressed sympathy for what he had been through. The movie addresses the morally difficult questions of whether a killer is born or bred, and whether we should feel sympathy for him. She wants to heal his shattered soul, which I would argue is the noble and righteous thing to do, yet there is an argument to be made for the simple elimination of evil of this level.

But what captivated me was how the counselor believed that a rough childhood could explain a life of heinous crime, yet the FBI agent was convinced that it wasn't sufficient. When challenged, he didn't explain, but merely spoke in certain terms that he knew for a fact, that a person could go through much worse and not grow up to have a desire to do such terrible things to another human being. I believe him. I think such trauma can certainly contribute to a terrible outcome, but I don't think that's the necessary outcome, that another person could come through it differently. I think there is both nurture and nature at work. Yet I can still sympathize with the killer, without in any way condoning his crimes.

However, the FBI agent's conviction convinced me that he must have experienced much worse as a child, having come through it virtuously, so when it came his turn to dive into the mind of the killer, I thought there would come a chance for his demons to be explored. I don't think that really happened, and I was a bit disappointed that the plot didn't seem to follow through on that point. Maybe I was seeing more into that discussion than was meant to be there. In any case, I really do like the premise of going inside people's minds, and I want to see more of it!

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