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Dustin Putman

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The Cell (2000)
3 Stars

Directed by Tarsem Singh
Cast: Jennifer Lopez, Vince Vaughn, Vincent D'Onofrio, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Dylan Baker, Jake Weber, Jake Thomas, Tara Subkoff, James Gammon, Gareth Williams, Colton James, Patrick Bauchau.
2000 – 117 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for violence, gore, profanity, and sexual situations).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, August 19, 2000.

Following a fairly disappointing summer, where every movie seemed to be a cliched take-off of a film already made, acclaimed music video director Tarsem Singh's "The Cell" is a visionary masterpiece, not quite like anything you've ever seen before, nor will likely ever see again. A disturbing, evocative journey into the human mind, the film recalls your spookiest dreams, most forbidden fantasies, and darkest past memories, strung together in an unforgettably bold visual palette. That such a creative and bizarre motion picture was made at all is relatively surprising. That such a creative and bizarre motion picture was made in the big-budget world of mainstream Hollywood is nearly a miracle.

Catherine Deane (Jennifer Lopez) is a hard-working, sympathetic child therapist who, for seven years, has been working for Dr. Miriam Kent (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), the head of a top-flight institution and the creator of the Synaptic Transfer System, which allows a person to literally go into the subject's mind. Recently, Catherine has been working with a comatose young boy named Edward (Colton James), attempting to bring him back into reality, but the process of directly connecting with him is proving time-consuming and frustrating.

Meanwhile, the body count has risen once again with the discovery of the eighth body of a woman, found in a lake and bleached completely white, made to look like a porcelain doll. The schizophrenic killer is Carl Stargher (Vincent D'Onofrio), who seeks pleasure in kidnapping women, locking them up in a small Plexiglas room for 40 hours, and then flooding the room completely with water. What he does next, including suspending himself above his victims by fourteen metal rings deeply pierced into his body, is best left unsaid. His latest potential victim is Julia Hickson (Tara Subkoff), who has gone missing from the area and has forty hours to be found before she drowns. Worst of all is that Carl Stargher has just lapsed into a coma, preventing him from being able to tell anyone where Julia is located.

Enter FBI Agent Peter Novak (Vince Vaughn), whose only hope of saving Julia's life is persuading Catherine to go into Carl's mind. While the chance of success for such short notice is slim, Catherine agrees, not knowing what severely twisted things lie within the mind of such a pathological, mentally unhinged person.

A creepy horror-thriller with large helpings of fantastical imagery, "The Cell" puts a fresh spin on the tiresome Serial Killer genre by not only being about saving the latest victim in jeopardy, but also focuses on the inner-workings of a sick mind. A thought-provoking triumph, the film is possibly one of the most visually imaginative films ever put to celluloid, aided by director Singh, screenwriter Mark Protosevich, and, arguably the star of the picture, cinematographer Paul Laufer. Using jump cuts, slow motion, fast motion, upside-down and sideways shots, and many more stylish techniques, Singh and Laufer have created an entirely new world, one that is as beautiful and awe-inspiring as it is threatening and nightmarish. If Tarsem Singh ever had a blueprint to model "The Cell" after, his original film source would clearly be Luis Bunuel's mesmerizing "Un Chien Andalou," in which every grotesque moment was a powerful metaphor for the unfortunate toll that schizophrenia had taken on a person.

Carl, whose mind portrays his adult self as a powerful ruler who delights in the torture of all creatures that find their way into his lair, also has created a version of himself as a frightened child (Jake Thomas) whose father physically and verbally abuses him. Catherine quickly realizes that the only possible way to get through to Stargher and find out where Julia is is to warm up to the child in him, whom she grows to deeply feel for under the discouraging circumstances.

The beautiful Jennifer Lopez (1998's "Out of Sight"), who has gained added popularity in the past two years from her debut pop album, "On the 6," should be applauded for taking on such an undoubtedly daunting project as this. Lopez appropriately underplays the role of Catherine, who sympathizes with the abused Carl and seems to connect with him due to something unmentioned from her own past. While more development could have been done with her character (the thinly written roles are the picture's sole sore spot), Lopez brings much-needed maturity and subtlety to Catherine, and believably portrays a therapist.

Vincent D'Onofrio is both menacing and poignant as the ill Carl Stargher, and like Lopez, gets to take on many different role and costume changes, depending on what his mind does with him. The film calls for him to be psychotic and frightening at certain points, and lonely and scared at others, and D'Onofrio pulls it off. Vince Vaughn is professional, if unextraordinary, as Peter Novak, and does exactly what is required of the role, and not much more.

Featured in supporting roles are Marianne Jean-Baptiste (1996's "Secrets & Lies") and Dylan Baker (1998's "Happiness"), as the two scientists who head the project of synaptic transfer; Jake Weber, as Peter's partner, Gordon Ramsey; and Tara Subkoff, who manages to be powerful in only a few small scenes, as Carl's last victim, Julia Hickson.

A genuinely rewarding and surprisingly touching experience, "The Cell" is a one-of-a-kind motion picture that is not only a feast for the eyes and ears (the music score, by Howard Shore, is erratically memorable), but also works up and lays bare emotions that are rarely felt in films nowadays. That "The Cell" is a visually astounding work of art, as well as satisfying on a story basis is cause for celebration, and director Tarsem Singh deserves all the praise one could possibly get for making a debut feature as strong as this one.

©2000 by Dustin Putman

Dustin Putman