The Tarsem Odyssey
Writer: Mark Protosevich
Cast: Jennifer Lopez, Vince Vaughn, Vincent D’Onofrio, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Jake Weber, Dylan Baker, Dean Norris
Producer: Julio Caro, Eric McLeod
Cinematography: Paul Laufer
Music: Howard Shore
Company: New Line Cinema
Release: August 18, 2000
Awards: Michele Burke & Edouard Henriques were nominated for an Oscar for Best Makeup, but lost to “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.”
For a film that was released during the dying breath of the serial killer film craze of the late 1990s and treated like yesterday’s trash, “The Cell” seems astonishingly ahead of its time today. Aspects of its storytelling that were attacked when it was released – most notably that it dared to psychoanalyze… even show sympathy… with a serial killer – are routinely in the zeitgeist today in television series like “Hannibal” and “Mindhunter.” And its visual audaciousness seems perfectly in tune with the visual studies produced in any given CGI blockbuster today. All that said, it’s a testament to the craft and precision of its filmmaking that “The Cell” still feels bold and distinct when viewed in 2018.
Right from the first frames, which show a maiden in a beautiful white gown galloping on a black horse across a stark, red desert, you can tell that you’re in for a different kind of serial killer movie. This was Tarsem’s first feature after years spent directing well-received music videos and commercials, and it’s clear from the very beginning that he approached every aspect of the production from a “Why not put it in?” perspective. Here is a film always interested in what’s around the next bend… what carrot it can chase next. There’s a scene about halfway through the film which is as close to rote as the movie gets, where Jennifer Lopez and Vince Vaughn’s characters are discussing the killings in the hospital room of a comatose child. It’s the usual set-up: over, over, two shot. Three minutes into the scene, Lopez abruptly stops the conversation and demands a change of scenery –though her proclamation works in the context of the story, one has to wonder if she spoke for Tarsem, who was desperate to reframe the scene in a more distinctive visual way.
It would be so easy to lose the story thread amid all the neat camera tricks, extensive special effects work and colorful costuming. So it’s a credit to Mark Protosevich’s screenplay that the story is always clear, always understandable and, mostly importantly, always engaging. In any given moment, we always understand the stakes, and the story never seems to be in a rush to get from beat to beat. Lopez stars as Catherine Deane (her name is perhaps the most routine thing in the picture), a doctor who is attempting to connect with patients emotionally by literally placing her consciousness into their consciousness. Elsewhere, Vince Vaughn plays FBI Agent Peter Novak (never mind, that’s the most routine thing in the movie), who is hot on the trail of a serial killer who drowns his victims in a giant glass room that fills with water before turning them into haunting human “dolls” wrapped in plastic much like poor Laura Palmer.
We meet the killer, Carl Stargher (Vincent D’Onofrio), within the first reel, and at first the filmmakers seemingly have no interest in creating sympathy for him. How can you tell? Well, one of the first things he does is hang himself from chains sticking out of his back while masturbating over his newest (already dead) victim. In a genre where out-grossing your competition is the main draw, this visual remains blunt and terrifying in a way that haunts you through the rest of the running time.
Stargher is a schizophrenic and, while taking a bath, has some sort of seizure that sends him into a vegetative state. Seconds later, Novak and his comrades (one is named Gordon Ramsay – not kidding – and another is Hank from “Breaking Bad”) break into the apartment to arrest him.
Movie over? Not quite.
Before his episode, Stargher had kidnapped his next victim, who is trapped in that glass room where she will drown in a matter of days/hours (the timeline isn’t quite clear). And thus the disparate threads of the film all converge, with Deane having to explore Stargher’s subconscious and figure out where his victim is hidden.
Of course, this is all completely bonkers.
But I’ll be damned if I wasn’t fully onboard the entire time. Protosevich takes his time laying the track to get to his central conceit, and does many things both major and minor to make us buy the craziness happening onscreen. Note how the screenplay frames the scene where Deane and Novak’s storylines finally converge. Novak has to push Deane hard to get her to agree… even to the point of begging. Without articulating it, Deane seems to view this storytelling twist with the same wariness the audience may, and because of her behavior here, it’s easier for us to swallow what we are seeing.
That said, I still take issue with a later development. When Deane gets lost in Stargher’s subconscious, Novak finds himself diving into the killer’s mind as well to rescue her. Perhaps if there was only one expert technician person overseeing the entire experiment it would be easier to swallow, but there are two (Marianne Jean-Baptiste and Dylan Baker, sadly wasted), and both seem to be doing nothing more than monitoring what’s happening and saying nursery rhymes to Deane. Deane can send herself into a mind and pull herself out easily enough (she effectively locks the others out of the room and does it by herself in the finale), so they seem like they would be perfect candidates to help out. But no, it has to be Novak, who only found out about this whole thing three hours before… thank goodness there is a perfectly fitted bodysuit in just his size in a closet somewhere waiting for him!
Yes, I know, we need him to go inside Stargher’s mind so he can get the clue that will help him figure out where the woman is hidden blah blah blah. But in a film where every twist is better written than one would expect, this is the one where there is still a rough edge. I understand its necessity in theory and appreciate the places this moment leads to in the third act, but that doesn’t excuse the moment itself.
The execution of the subconscious remains a towering achievement. Aside from one or two dated choices (the echoing of the voices in the opening sequence, most notably), much of the visual splendor that Tarsem and his army of creators pack into these sequences holds up. In fact, much of the inventiveness looks better than the obvious CGI fantasy we get today, 18 years after “The Cell” was released. Of course, it helps that these sequences aren’t supposed to be entirely realistic, but you cannot discount the fact that they have a weight to them missing from today’s movies.
I would begin to name my favorite visuals, but that would turn into an awkward, long list. Instead I want to focus on the fact that Tarsem doesn’t choose a single visual style for the subconscious… each trip is distinctive, original and different. He pulls his shots from H.R. Giger, Damien Hirst, Odd Nerdrum, “Twin Peaks” and even seems influenced by his own work from R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion” video for the scene where Deane loses herself in Stargher’s mind. Everything looks amazing – I am genuinely shocked that Cinematographer Paul Laufer hasn’t done any film of note since “The Cell.”
The rest of the technical team is aces too. Before he landed in Middle Earth, Howard Shore was most noted for composing serial killer films like “Silence of the Lambs” and “Se7en.” Here he is allowed a little more diversity thanks to the dream sequences, but the overall effect of his music seems to be inflicting trauma on the listener. Oh, in case you didn’t know, I meant that last bit as a compliment.
Tarsem began his creative love affair with costume designer Eiko Ishioka here (she shares credit with April Napier) – anyone who has seen the film will remember the dream suits that feel like a precursor to the “Body” exhibits today, and that amazing costume with the odd silver partial mask that Lopez wears while trapped in Stargher’s mind.
As the film climaxes, I couldn’t help but applaud the hat trick that the filmmakers had pulled off – they had somehow made two developments which would reek of false suspense in most other films impossible to look away from. When Novak discovers Stargher’s victim, she is sucking air from a pipe in the room, not really in much danger of dying anytime soon. But your heart still races when he breaks the glass and cradles the woman. Likewise, it should not matter whether Deane saves Stargher’s soul, since his body will be comatose for the rest of his existence, and yet her final confrontation with Stargher’s demon (and realization that by killing the demon, she is killing the innocent within as well) summons up much emotional resonance from this viewer. Amazingly, Tarsem and his editor Robert Duffy intercut these over-the-top visuals and the chase to find Stargher’s victim. For the rest of the film, the mind sequences were like islands unto themselves, with Tarsem taking all the time he needed to develop mood, using cutaways to “the real world” as sparingly as possible. Here, he blends the fantastical with the reality, and though it shouldn’t work, it does, climaxing with the duel images of Novak and Deane in baptismal stances.
It’s probably telling that I haven’t even begun to address the acting. Lopez does not give a great performance as Deane, but she gives the right performance – exhausted, vaguely optimistic and patient throughout. She looks great in her fantastical costumes, but in these moments seems like Jennifer Lopez the person, not Deane the character. Vaughn had just belly-flopped as Norman Bates in the abortive “Psycho” remake, and his performance is much more tentative than the role needs – Jake Weber (as Gordon Ramsey, not the chef) does a much better job of convincing you he is an FBI agent than Vaughn ever manages to. D’Onofrio comes across the best of the three, maniacally going over the top through his makeup as he slowly pulls Novak’s intestine out of his body. When he gets made up, he seems in sync with whatever iteration of his character we see, calibrating his performance higher or lower as a result.
“The Cell” was a modest success at the box office, grossing $104 million off a $30-ish million budget, but seems to have become lost to history. And what a shame, because for all intents and purposes, it holds up better than 99% of its serial killer counterparts. Critics were vastly divided on the film, with a small minority loving it (Roger Ebert was a major champion, placing it among his top ten of the year) while most just loathed it. Looking at the reviews today, there doesn’t appear to be many who went “meh.” And, as always, I’d prefer a movie that polarizes audiences than one everyone agrees on – that proves its filmmakers took chances others did not.
I think a lot of the hate came because this was released in 2000, when critics were sick and tired of serial killer tropes, and generally unwilling to accept anything from the genre, no matter how good. We were nine years past “Silence of the Lambs” and five years past “Se7en.” The past three years had some genre hits at the box office, most notably 1997’s “Kiss the Girls” and 1999’s “The Bone Collector,” but critics hated them. Comparable movies like 2000’s “The Watcher” were dying on the vine, and even a horror icon like “American Psycho” got mixed reviews and barely grossed $35 million. Taken within that context, it’s easy to see how “The Cell” got lost in the mix, and how critic didn’t want to see a serial killer, let alone dive into his subconscious.
This bad timing would follow Tarsem throughout his career to the present day, with each of his subsequent works being released at the wrong time and, consequently, being compared unfavorably to other parts of the zeitgeist. “The Fall” was trapped in “Pan’s Labyrinth’s” shadow, while “Immortals” was essentially seen as “300”-lite. “Mirror, Mirror” was released after “Snow White and the Huntsman” but before Disney’s “Malificent” began the current fairy tale revisionist trend. And you couldn’t find a review of “Emerald City” that didn’t compare it unfavorably to “Game of Thrones.” What a shame.
More interesting is why “The Cell” hasn’t been rediscovered by modern audiences. It doesn’t help that Tarsem never developed the following he should have, and its two major stars are now more known for their films in other genres (Lopez for romantic comedies, Vaughn for lowbrow comedies). And yet there the film sits, aging better than its contemporaries and waiting. Just waiting.