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Trapped in the Synapses of Evil

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 18, 2000


    'The Cell'
In "The Cell," Jennifer Lopez plays a therapist who enters the twisted dreams of a psychopath (Vincent D'Onofrio).

(New Line Cinema)
I say, destroy the "Matrix" matrix!

And here's another example of a movie trapped in it. "The Cell," seemingly a serial-killer thriller after the fashion of "The Silence of the Lambs," is actually set in a kind of cerebral cyberspace where an intrepid astronaut of inner space--the subconscious--cruises in an attempt to find and heal (or, failing that, find and destroy) the monster that is, in his non-subconscious life, kidnapping, torturing and murdering young women.

It's clearly an attempt to cash in on the aura of "The Matrix," last year's dark-side hit. It swims through a sublogical fantasy world where there are no rules that can't be violated by the set designer, where everybody is really thin and beautiful and wears really cool clothes, and where death is everywhere.

This orgy of overdesign is the true core of the film, and is just barely justified by its laughable premodernist armature--otherwise called a "story"--which seems to go something like this:

The setup involves a billionaire's son locked in catatonia, so the billionaire has funded an extraordinary research project that has found a way--the science is vague--to make Mr. Spock's favorite tool available to the boys and girls of planet Earth: the Vulcan mind-meld. Thus our heroine, therapist Catherine Deane (Jennifer Lopez, who is so beautiful she would send most men into therapy, not out of it), can enter the boy's mind, and meet and counsel him toward wakefulness.

Meanwhile, in another part of the movie, a rancid serial killer named Carl Stargher (the excellent actor Vincent D'Onofrio) is kidnapping then torturing and murdering young women. Smart FBI guys, led by Peter Novak (Vince Vaughn), track him down, but in the seconds before he is seized, he is really seized--by a seizure related to a brain virus that renders him catatonic.

Alas--now, this isn't too contrived, is it?--he has already captured his latest victim, and she is trapped in his high-tech cell, where his robot torture equipment will excruciatingly drown her in 40 hours unless . . .

So it is that Jennifer Lopez must enter his diseased mind and look for clues amid all the music-vid art direction. But first, of course, she has to don her please-look-at-my-breasts rubber suit, obviously a necessity for cerebral voyaging. Once zipped into it--looks like it would hurt, if you know what I mean, and I think you do--she's off, into his phantasmagoria.

That's the best part of "The Cell," and possibly its one redeeming value. It makes a valiant effort to understand the theory and practice of human evil, and therefore it discovers two beings, one who breaks our hearts and another who makes our trigger fingers itch. The first is the boy the man was. He's not a cliche but an archetype: bruised, assaulted by the father creature, torn to shreds on the force of the larger man's violence, in a world without surcease from his hurting.

Of course he becomes the second: a malevolent, preening power-tripper, offended by the beauty of the women his father has made him feel unworthy of ever possessing. So he sets out to wreak vengeance on his father through the vessel of their flesh. Here, the movie's twisted obsession with sadomasochism and misogyny--hard to look at, believe me--seems to be onto something: It creates, believably, the world according to the Beast, it goes behind his eyes and makes you feel his grotesqueness.

D'Onofrio's specialty is losing himself in his parts--he was the fat crazy Marine Gomer Pyle in Kubrick's "Full Metal Jacket" and the bug man in "Men in Black"--and here he really lets go. He becomes the monster, a riveting performance, made all the more monstrous by his human face and the shy-boy mannerisms that hide him from the world, by the long hair that never lets you see his eyes, by the tentativeness of his body language.

I quote from the master of this world, Thomas Harris, in words uttered by William Petersen in "Manhunter" (drawn from Harris's novel "Red Dragon"): "I want to hold the child he was in my arms and protect him; I want to blow the sick - - - - he became out of his socks." D'Onofrio and director Tarsem Singh (an MTV guy, of course) make you see the doubleness here: the tender, violated boy, the sick - - - - that he became.

The rest is energetic if overdrawn. Vaughn lacks the gravitas of an FBI agent. It would have been nicer if an older man, someone with the lines of more life experience stamped into his face, had been given this role. (Petersen could have played it brilliantly, but of course he's so over, he's not there anymore). And Jennifer Lopez as a therapist? I don't think so.

The last act is strictly race-against-time stuff, entirely arbitrary, but it could hardly be anything else given the shabbiness of the setup, with its mechanical devices that crank into play at a certain time, straight out of Fu Manchu.

The movie is riveting in its low way. It traffics in imagery profoundly disturbing. But D'Onofrio gives it heart--a black heart, to be sure, but a heart nevertheless.

THE CELL(R, 118 minutes) – Contains extreme violence toward women and other profoundly disturbing imagery.


© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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