Title: The Cell (2000)
Director: Tarsem Singh Dhandwar
Cast: Jennifer Lopez, Vincent D’Onofrio, Vince Vaughn
My first experiences with director Tarsem Singh’s unique visual imagery came by way of his music video for R.E.M.’s ‘Loosing My Religion’. Remember that one? Of course you do, the song has gone on to become a classic. It was a huge hit for R.E.M. and so was the video. It won the award for Music Video of the Year at the 1991 MTV Video Music Video Awards. That video has always been one of my favorites, something about it’s visuals just stick to my mind like glue. The visual strengths of that video were enough to get him his first gig directing a feature length film, which is the film I will be reviewing today: The Cell. How did Tarsem’s first feature length film go?
Tarsem directs Jennifer Lopez
On The Cell we meet Child Psychologist Catherine Deane (Jennifer Lopez) she specializes in a new type of therapy that lets you venture into your patients mind. This experimental technology lets you walk through a mental patients mind until you find their inner child. Then all you have to do is earn their trust and try and convince them to return to sanity, which Catherine doesn’t always succeed in doing; most of the time her patients divert right back into their own twisted dementias. But she keeps on trying in hopes that she will one day reach and cure one of them. At the same time, the FBI has caught a serial killer who has gone catatonic! The killer is completely unconscious and unfortunately, he is the only one who knows the location of his latest victim; a girl who will die in a matter of hours if they don’t find a way to wake the killer up so he can tell them where she’s hidden. In comes Catherine and her mind entering technology. She is asked by the FBI to venture into the killers mind to see if she can extract the location of the victim so that they can save her in time. Will the killers subconscious mind cooperate with Catherine? Will Catherine gain enough of the killers trust to get him to tell her where the girl is located?
One thing I found interesting about this movie is that it starts where other films of this kind end. You know how thrillers are all about getting the killer, and finding him before he kills somebody else? Well on this one, they’ve already caught the killer in the first 20 minutes of the film, the rest of the film is about venturing into the killers mind. So it’s a fast paced film, it gets to the good stuff rather quickly which I thought was awesome. It didn’t feel formulaic. This movie functions in the same way that a Nightmare on
Elm Street film does, but of course, without Mr. Kruegers famous one liners. And these aren’t dream worlds we are visiting, these are mindscapes. But same as in a Freddy movie, if you die in the mind, your mind makes it real enough that you die in the real world as well. The best part of this film comes of course when the characters hook up to the machine that transports them into a patient’s mind, that’s when Tarsem’s visual magic comes into place. Tarsem has always been a director (much like Terry Gilliam) whose films are extremely influenced by paintings. You watch The Cell and you will get glimpses of where exactly Tarsem gets his inspiration. I picked up some H.R. Giger in certain scenes and a little bit of Salvador Dahli in others. Some scenes were also inspired by the kind of artwork we could find in Tarot cards, and others have elements from paintings by Odd Nerdrum, a Norwegian surrealist.
Odd Nerdrum's 'Dawn' (above) and H.R. Giger's 'Schacht' (below) two paintings that influenced the filmmakers behind The Cell.
I love directors who build their films around their love of art because most of the time it guarantees an interesting looking film, which is exactly what The Cell is, an extremely beautiful looking film. Nightmarish, horrifying, hallucinatory, yet so beautiful. I mean, this kind of director knows where to draw from, they don’t just create their images from thin air; they know and love art, and they know which great artists they can best filter their imaginations through. The Cell draws from so many different sources! From music videos that came before it, from paintings, from tarot cards, from other films; this is a film rich with its artistic influences.
For example, when we go into the psychopath’s mindscape, it’s a total trip that brought to mind moments from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1969) mixed with an H.R. Giger painting and the aforementioned R.E.M. video. The best part is that since the psycho is such a twisted individual (he likes to hang from hooks as he masturbates while watching his victims drowning) well, the visuals and situations that we see when we go into his mind, are truly disturbing. These are the scenes where Tarsem cuts loose with dream imagery and logic. From the moment where we go into the killers mind onward, everything is extremely symbolic and surreal. Ever wondered how a psychopath sees himself in his mind? What kind of a world does a psychopath go to when they sleep? Is a psychopaths mind a place you’d want to get lost in? These are the questions this film asks and also answers. It goes further than that and analyzes what makes a killer a killer. What happened through out the course of his life that led him to become a psychopath?
We get good performances all around, Jennifer Lopez as Catherine was appropriately angelic. She plays this lonely psychologist, she lives all alone in her cozy little apartment, and goes to sleep watching Rene Laloux’s Fantastic Planet (1973), by the way, Fantastic Planet is a film I always highly recommend, which means... give yourself a chance to check it out! There’s this scene where Catherine is getting ready to go to sleep, and just before she does, she lights up a joint and smokes it! I tell you there’s nothing more sensual than watching Jennifer Lopez smoking a joint in her undies, at least in this Film Connoisseur’s eyes! But on with my review…we also get Vincent D’Onofrio as the psychopath, and his performance is a frightening one. Strangest part is that even though he plays an extremely twisted individual, the film actually manages to get you to feel “sympathy for the devil”; for we learn that this psychopath’s upbringing was the stuff of nightmares! And finally, we get Vince Vaughn in one of those serious roles he used to do before he decided to do comedies almost exclusively. But aside from its cast, the real stars of the show are the visuals. Surprisingly, even though The Cell’s strengths lie in its visuals, the film is not style over substance; there is weight and symbolisms within Tarsem’s dreamy, stylish visuals. These aren’t images conjured up simply to look cool, nope, they all say something about the story and the characters.
In closing, this was a great start for Tarsem as a director. He went on to direct an elaborate Pepsi Cola commercial that showed Beyonce, Pink and Britney Spears as gladiators, and Enrique Iglesias as a despotic Emperor with Queen’s “We Will Rock You” playing in the background; I remember being impressed by that one, it had that look and feel of an extremely expensive multi million dollar commercial. After that he went with a film called The Fall (2006) which sadly failed to find its audience. I haven’t seen it, but my dear readers; you can expect a review for it in the next couple of days. His most recently released worked was the awesome Immortals (2011), which I recently gave a glowing five star review to. Up next for Tarsem is Mirror, Mirror (2012) a comedy/fantasy film that is based on ‘Snow White’ by The Brothers Grimm. I’m looking forward to that one. But it was The Cell that jumpstarted Tarsem’s career as a film director. It feels at time a little bit like David Fincher's Seven (1995), but with a sci-fi angle to it. In my eyes The Cell still remains one of Tarsem’s strongest films; after all these years it still managed to surprise and impress me!
Rating: 4 out of 5