Twenty years ago, the once independent New Line Cinema (now owned by Warner Brothers) made expensive art movies for mainstream audiences.
While the studio was a year away from the unveiling of their game-changing “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, they had a stack of creative wild cards alongside the more mainstream fair.
Their run of noteworthy, highly personal films proved impressive:
- David Fincher’s “Seven” (1995)
- Alex Proyas’ “Dark City” (1998)
- Gary Ross’ “Pleasantville” (1998)
- Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Magnolia” (1999)
Among the most surprising and bizarre of these late 20th century classics from the studio is Tarsem Singh’s “The Cell,” a serial killer thriller with a novel sci-fi twist, a dash of fairy tale horror and a look both highly theatrical and baroque.
Jennifer Lopez (miscast but somehow still bewitching) stars as Catherine, a child psychologist undertaking a revolutionary science experiment. Catherine is aiding a troubled child by entering her client’s dreams. Wearing a skin-tight red suit, suspended in mid-air and using technology similar to virtual reality, Catherine is struggling to connect with a young boy in a coma, whose scary imaginary friend keeps interrupting their sessions.
Meanwhile, a serial killer named Carl Rudolph Stargher (Vincent D’Onofrio), has kidnapped yet another young girl, who he plans to psychologically torture and murder in unusual and truly disgusting ways.
A clever FBI agent (Vince Vaughn) manages to track Carl down but, with the killer suddenly in a coma, there’s no way of knowing where he keeps his prey hostage. Catherine’s ability to reach patients at their core subconscious makes her the prime candidate to enter the mind of serial killer, to save a future victim.
Playing like a cross between “The Silence of the Lambs” and “A Nightmare on Elm St.” (or “The Matrix if it were directed by Alejandro Jodorowsky), “The Cell” made a striking impression in the crowded serial killer movie category in 2000, by coalescing genres and allowing the filmmaker to go all-in with his visual onslaught.
Singh utilizes imagery that incorporates contemporary and classical artworks, mise-en-scene right out of an MTV video (remember, he directed R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion”) and vividly surrealistic imagery that suggests both Luis Bunuel and Georges Melies.
The script reads like Andrew Kevin Walker crossed with Lewis Carroll, with Tarsem utilizing imagery out of contemporary and classic artworks.
While the serial killer here is unlike the central killer of “The Silence of the Lambs,” they share interesting traits. Whereas Ted Levine’s Buffalo Bill committed grotesque crimes, exuded a feminine flamboyance (which got the film in deep trouble with LGBTQ activists) and owned a small dog named “Precious,” D’Onofrio’s killer is defined as heterosexual, but also owns a sweet albino dog who is always at his side and commits crimes with a sexual as well as sadistic nature.
He also suspends himself in mid-air with hooks implanted on his back while he…never mind. It’s gross and the film delves in the S&M nature of the killer’ proclivities.
Far more is suggested than actually shown, thankfully.
The most difficult moments are actually the audio of the footage from Stargher’s filming of his trapped victims. For all the fantasy elements on hand, the horrible reality of lives at stake is never overlooked.
“The Cell” is outrageous, shocking and exciting. Like Howard Shore’s busy score, it’s rousing, deeply textured and a bit much at times. When I caught it late into the summer of 2000, I was turned off by the imagery, which felt too gaudy and silly.
Today, it’s still gaudy and silly but in a manner that suggests the kind of cinematic pageantry and splendor in the works of Julie Taymor. Indeed, Tarsem’s prior experience as a music video visualist is evident but he’s also giving his film debut stunning vistas and unbridled imagination that is rare, especially for this genre.
I wish Lopez still made movies like this. Following her Streisand-esque rom-com hits “The Wedding Planner” and “Maid in Manhattan,” she mostly avoided making any more dramas (aside from her recent hit, the one where she performed cinema’s most celebrated pole dance).
We should remember that Lopez started her career giving solid turns working for Bob Rafelson (“Blood and Wine”), Oliver Stone (“U-Turn”) and Steven Soderbergh (“Out of Sight”) and that, despite her status as a pop star, she’s actually an impressive actress.
Here, her decision to underplay Catherine, coming across more like a dedicated babysitter than an acclaimed psychologist, doesn’t entirely connect, but she is still somehow striking and welcome in the role.
Vaughn is so good here, as he digs into a dramatic role without the cutesy, motor-mouthed auto-pilot that is present in his best and worst comedy vehicles. He was doing a lot of dark thrillers at this point in his career, which took a comedic turn with “Old School” (2003) and “Dodgeball” (2004).
Only lately has he returned to drama, which is fortunate.
He’s quirky but commanding in “The Cell,” giving the film’s best performance. Then there’s D’Onofrio, who fearlessly commits to a character that must have taken some real nerve to play.
A sizable hit upon release, “The Cell” paved the way for Tarsem to indulge in making “The Fall” (2006), his years-in-the-making magnum opus, which I’d describe as “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen” with “The Never-ending Story;” it’s his masterpiece, a work with a human center that matches the truly astonishing visuals.
It was followed by “Immortals” (2011), his biggest commercial hit, though the wannabe “300” is only worth seeing once for its optics and nothing else. Tarsem’s last two movies, the cutesy “Mirror Mirror” (2012) with Julia Roberts and the forgettable Ryan Reynolds sci-fi chase “Self/less” (2015), were overly commercial and lacked his inner fire (the latter is especially devoid of his auteur touches).
Lately, Tarsem is responsible for Lady Gaga’s “911” music video, which was released a month ago.
It features his vistas of extravagant costumes, sweeping desert vistas and character duality present in both “The Cell” and “The Fall.” Leave it to Tarsem to finally shape a notable and worthy follow-up (both thematically and in presentation) to his best films, in the form of a Lady Gaga video.
“The Cell” is a true standout in the overstuffed serial killer thriller genre, in which a wild, grisly premise is given unfiltered innovation by a brilliant filmmaker.
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