Tarsem Singh’s The Cell asks the provocative question, “What goes on inside a serial killer’s mind?,” and ends by concluding that he mostly wants to dress up in one of Cher’s Oscar outfits.
Carl Stargher (Vincent D’Onofrio) has a thing about purity. His only companion is an albino German Shepherd, he’s left behind him a trail of murdered women whose skin he bleaches to a snow-white pallor, and the sexual violations he commits on their corpses are staged as purification rites. He’s just grabbed his latest victim and stashed her in a subterranean glass-walled cell when a neurological seizure leaves him both in a coma and in the hands of the authorities. FBI agent Peter Novak (Vince Vaughn) has figured out that he’s the killer, and Novak also knows that this new prisoner has some 40 hours to live before Stargher’s automated death-tub will finish her off. But how can he extract her location from Stargher in his state of living death? The answer lies in an experimental form of chemical/electrical therapy that allows one person to enter another person’s mind and directly experience all the layers of their mental workings in real time. Because child therapist Catherine Deane (Jennifer Lopez) is the only person who’s gone through the process, she’s chosen to step inside Stargher’s personality in the hope that she can somehow learn the location of the cell.
The Cell may sound like a literal version of The Silence of the Lambs, but most of its running time is dedicated to taking the outlandish production design of The Matrix one step further. Two-thirds of the movie occurs inside the mind of one character or another, and even a single character’s consciousness can give home to many different looks and motifs, ranging from the innards of what looks like a rundown hotel to a high gilt chamber to stunning desert landscapes that seem like the embodiment of a metaphysical state of being. All of the movie’s effort has been poured into its look, and even its real world settings have the painted-on vividness of a state of the art computer game.
The Cell is more of a polyglot coffee-table book than it is a movie, drawing visual inspiration from fashion design, classical and religious art, Jungian symbolism, modern sculpture, and the commercials and music videos that Singh directed before now. “The imagery came from everywhere,” production designer Tom Foden has said, as if the filmmakers’ lack of discrimination were an asset. Well, The Cell may be a triumph of production design, but unlike last year’s Being John Malkovich, it’s wholly uninterested in mining the possibilities of a movie that’s set inside one of its character’s minds.
The few visions that are specifically related to Stargher’s personality revolve around the hideous abuse he suffered as a child at the hands of his father – that is, the one event that we might assume would have occurred to such a man. But why is his world bereft of those absurd perceptions and surreal juxtapositions that we notice in our own minds on an almost hourly basis, the ones that seemingly allow us to smell a color, or that make a matchbook suddenly seem larger than the universe? Even such a fundamental aspect of human life as music may not mean much to a psychopath, but wouldn’t at least one song – even if it was “Roll Out the Barrel” – bounce through Stargher’s head at some point in the hours that Catherine spends there? And why do we only see only two versions of the real Stargher? Where is the 16-year old, or the one whose car broke down on the freeway that time? Why did Singh and screenwriter Mark Protosevich take their eclectic grab bag of images “from everywhere” without making a real concession to the one source that’s actually rooted in their story?
The Cell is so focused on its visual trickery that it can’t even be bothered to follow through on its original premise. When Catherine is “captured” within Stargher’s dream-world, and Novak must join her there in order to save her, it’s his discovery of a banal, earthbound clue that solves one of the central problems facing the investigation. After raising the expectation that a confrontation between the straight and demented worlds will after all amount to something, in the end the movie comes down to some old-fashioned police work that Catherine isn’t even a part of.
At least The Cell’s concentration on visuals keeps the primitive dialogue to a minimum, and if Catherine doesn’t have much of a character, neither does she have some synthetic backstory pasted onto her to give her substance. The movie’s one joke (which is probably unintentional) comes when Catherine “reverses the feed” and invites Stargher into her mind for a change, and we see that this woman, who on the outside is a picture of saintly empathy, is just as much a queen in her world as Stargher is a king in his. Garbed in a nun’s habit and inhabiting a pastel world that’s awash in cherry blossoms, she’s a Virgin Mary whose mental landscape is a prayer card.
Singh has concocted a flick for people who think that mere sensation can sustain a movie, and who don’t require any more coherence than what can be gotten from flipping through a fashion magazine. It doesn’t matter if the scenes are superficial or even clammily reprehensible so long as the groovy pictures keep on coming. Movies like The Cell are cinematic pacifiers, and we might as well be in a coma while we’re watching them..
– Tom Block