"Imaginary evil," Simone Weil once charged, "is romantic and varied: real evil is gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring. Imaginary good is boring: real good is always new, marvelous, intoxicating. ‘Imaginative literature,’ therefore, is either boring, or immoral, or a mixture of both."
There are exceptions to Weil’s stinging indictment of fictional good and evil; but she’s got a point. Think of Hannibal Lecter, Ursula the Sea Witch, Dracula, the Wicked Witch of the West, the Terminator, Norman Bates. Think of the rogues’ galleries in Batman and Dick Tracy. Now think about their opposite numbers: Clarice Starling, Ariel, Van Helsing, Glinda the Good Witch, and so on. Not as memorable a list, is it? The heroes have our cheers, but the villains capture our imagination; our hearts are for good, but our eyes are on evil.
Now consider The Cell, a film that uses a sci-fi plot device and stunning production values to take both its audience and its protagonist, therapist Catherine Deane (Jennifer Lopez), on a surreal journey into the mind of a sexual predator named Carl Stargher (Vincent D’Onofrio, memorable as the creepy alien-stuffed Edgar in Men in Black).
Judging from his modus operandi, Carl Stargher may be a big fan of The Silence of the Lambs: Like the predator in that film, he kidnaps women, kills them only after first imprisoning them for a set time in an isolated hellhole, chemically treats their skin, and engages in a bizarre post-mortem ritual with their corpses before disposing of them for the FBI to find. He even lies in wait for victims in dark parking areas and has an elaborate device to neutralize their wariness. (Of course, it wasn’t his idea that there’s also a female protagonist who has to "get inside" his mind in order to save his latest victim. But before you conclude that The Cell is derivative, consider this: In Silence, Buffalo Bill had a little white dog that turned out to be a liability to him. Stargher has a big white dog that turns out to be a liability to him.)
The twist here is that the FBI catches up with Stargher fairly easily — only to have him succumb to an irreversible coma brought on by his unique neurological disorder. Now authorities have scant hours to find his most recent kidnapping victim before a deathtrap mechanism takes her life. This, of course, provides the rationale for Catherine Deane’s trippy excursion into Stargher’s mind.
For audiences, though, the trip is the rationale. As visualized by first-time film director Tarsem, Stargherspace is a realm of sublimely horrific grandeur, an endlessly elaborate wonderland of misogynistic perversion, a towering Taj Mahal of depravity over which he himself reigns in lurid glory, transformed in his mind into a thing of constantly shifting and terrible splendor: a majestic lord of sadism whose train fills his own temple; a satyr-like horned demon; an exotic Eastern harem-master; and also, hiding from the others, the young boy that Stargher once was.
Tarsem’s background is in music videos and advertising, and visuals are his stock in trade. Images of undeniable imaginative force assail one’s senses as the film touts its own virtuosity, knowledgably referencing creative touchstones from Dali and Degas to the notorious Sensation art exhibit and Nine Inch Nails music videos.
It’s the most disturbing and repulsive imagery I can remember ever seeing in any film. The Cell gives imaginative and visual shape to as it were the very soul of misogynism, perversion, depravity, sadism, and the supreme nihilism and egotism of the damned. The film also has some images of beauty, peace, and serenity; even some Christian symbolism — but all this is quickly overwhelmed, even betrayed and subverted, so that the dark themes dominate the film. (For more on The Cell’s subversive use of Christian imagery, see below.)
Do these disturbing images, by themselves, make The Cell an evil film? No. Dead Man Walking and Schindler’s List contain disturbing images but are deeply life-affirming films. Images in themselves are neutral. Subject and theme are neutral. Misogynism and perversion are obviously evil things, but using them in a story is neither good nor evil. How they’re used is what’s good or evil.
So how are these images used in The Cell? For shock or titillation? Not in any obvious pornographic or prurient sense. Certainly the villain is repellent and unsympathetic, and not for a moment are we asked to admire or sympathize with him, much less take pleasure in his perverse acts. Nor are the horrors gratuitously extended or repeated for mere impact; in each scene Tarsem accomplishes what he wants to and then moves on.
But what is it that he wants to accomplish? What does he offer us in exchange for making this descent into hell with him? Dead Man Walking and Schindler’s List used their horrible themes and images within the context of defining a clear moral vision. Films with more modest goals, that seek only to entertain, generally make more modest demands on the audience’s endurance; in The Fugitive a woman is murdered, but it’s filmed with comparative restraint. The Cell has no aspirations of articulating a persuasive or thoughtful moral vision. It isn’t really interested in the psychology or origins of predatory behavior, or even in the social climate that fosters movies about it. The roots of Stargher’s pathology are sketched in the most cursory way, rounding up the usual suspects — childhood trauma; an abusive, homophobic father; religious fundamentalism — but offering no real insight.
So what does the film have to offer? In a word: eye candy. That term more than any other crops up again and again in positive critical reviews describing The Cell’s merits. As this suggests, The Cell isn’t a film in which imagery exists primarily for the sake of telling a story, or establishing a moral vision, or doing anything else. The images themselves — their imaginative power and creative virtuosity — are the point; the rather formulaic and unexceptional story, with its perfunctory moral perspective, merely provide the context. The disturbingly misogynistic visuals aren’t there to communicate something about the reality of misogynism, misogynism is a theme in the film largely because it provides stunning visual material. And the arresting visual material? It’s there primarily to be looked at. Like a painting or statue, it exists for its own sake, as a tour de force of imagination, for audiences to react to on its own terms.
Does this make it an evil film? I’m not sure. It certainly makes it an extremely unpleasant and alienating one. I usually call a film evil when it advances an evil agenda, or attacks good and beautiful things, or tends to incline viewers to sin. The vile imagery of The Cell doesn’t exactly do any of these things. What it does do, though, is make the evil of Stargher’s mind into something magnificently impressive and grotesquely artistic. If that’s a crime — as Simone Weil charged — then The Cell is the worst offender I’ve ever seen.
So the images aren’t pornographic because they’re repellent instead of seductive. Is it a good thing that it fails to be pornographic only because most people lack the requisite perversions to be turned on by the grotesque images?
If Tarsem’s imagery is there for audiences to react to on its own terms, then here is my reaction: It’s ugly. I hate it. Tarsem, you have created visions of breathtaking vileness and hatefulness. Singlehandedly you have added to the nastiness product of the universe. I hope you’re proud.
I indicated above that the film does make some effort to realize images of beauty, serenity, and grace. Although the film is largely concerned with Catherine Deane’s excursions into Stargher’s mind, in a climactic reversal Stargher is brought into Catherine’s mind, where we find Catherine presiding over a lovely snow-village doll palace, herself transfigured, apparently, into a beatific prayer-card saint or Madonna, complete with radiant sunburst backlighting and golden ornamental scrollwork artfully tracing itself in the air in front of her. (Lopez reportedly denies that her appearance is meant to represent the Blessed Virgin; and the film’s official website modestly describes the manifestation as "a nun." However, Catherine is apparently inspired to adopt this persona from a glance at what looked to me like a holy card; which would probably make the figure she represents a saint. On the other hand, one source tells me that Tarsem has said she represents a "Brazilian water goddess." If that’s true, I can’t imagine what the image was that she looked at, or why she happened to have it with her in the lab. I would welcome further insight on this point from anyone unfortunate enough to have seen the film.)
One way or another, Christian imagery is at work in The Cell. Take Stargher’s childhood baptism, which we learn of from Stargher himself on the one occasion Catherine is able to find him, so to speak, in person, rather than in one of his various demented personas. He’s in a contemplative mood, reminiscing about his first kill; but when Catherine asks him a question about his father, he replies in an Exorcist-style movie-demon voice; prompting Catherine to ask: "Who told you to say that? When did he first begin speaking to you?"
And so Stargher tells her about the voice that came to him at the age of six, when he was baptized by immersion in a riverside ceremony of hand-waving fundamentalists. It was then that young Carl suffered the first attack of the neurological condition that would one day leave him comatose (it’s got something to do with water). He was helpless under the surface, and none of the fundamentalists made a move to help him. But a voice spoke to him under the waves, a presence that would support him and care for him, ultimately shaping him into the predator he became.
Who is this voice? Suffice to say, not the Holy Spirit. Whether the film means to suggest that Stargher was actually afflicted by an evil spirit — or only that he had the experience of encountering another personality, which was actually a projection of his own frail and threatened psyche — in either case the effect is the same: Carl’s baptism, so far from being the beginning of redemption, was in fact a wellspring of his damnation. Whether in fact or phenomenologically, Stargher becomes in effect possessed by some sort of devil at the exact moment he ought to be filled with the Holy Spirit.
This "anti-baptism" is echoed throughout the film. It’s no accident that Carl’s deathtrap drowns its victims. And there’s the story of the injured bird Carl once rescued as a boy. Carl explains that he was afraid that his father would do something terrible to the bird, so he submerged it in water until it was dead. "I saved it," he insists to Catherine, who is dubious about such "salvation" — until the film’s climactic anti-baptism, which she herself, in her nun/saint aspect, administers.
This takes place in the snow-palace in Catherine’s own mind. By this time the FBI has the information it needs to find and rescue the kidnapped girl; but Catherine wants to try to help the little boy in Stargher’s mind, so she connects with Carl’s mind and brings him into her inner world. "Can I stay here with you?" he pleads; but of course he can’t. And soon enough it doesn’t matter anyway. "He always finds me," the boy observes, and Catherine’s lovely world begins to go dark and insects and snakes appear out of nowhere as Carl’s dark side appears on the scene.
Notice that while Catherine is unable to change Carl’s inner world for the better, and indeed is almost swallowed whole by the darkness of his mind, he is easily able to darken and corrupt hers. Perhaps this is because he’s a terrible monster and she’s not really a saint but only a social worker. Aesthetically, though, the effect is that the evil images are stronger than the good ones; the darkness appears in the light, and the light cannot overcome it.
To be sure, when Stargher’s evil manifestation itself appears in Catherine’s mind, Catherine is far stronger ("My mind, my rules"). Assuming the appearance of what the film’s website calls a "Joan of Arc-like warrior goddess," she proceeds to knock him around, transfixing him with a crossbow bolt and even impaling him with a sword. However, he will not die, and to her horror Catherine discovers that whatever she inflicts on the monster-Carl is reflected back to the child-Carl.
Reverting to her nun/saint look, Catherine tenderly picks up the bloodied, battered little boy. Gently she carries him to a pool of water, and lowers him below the surface. In case we miss the symbolism, flashbacks explicitly remind us of Carl’s earlier anti-baptism. The little boy psychically dies; the monster dies; and, when Catherine awakes, weeping, Stargher’s body is dead.
How many things are wrong with this picture? Consider:
Tarsem is from India (his surname, which he has dropped, is Singh). He is from a non-Christian culture; his background is probably Hindu or Sikh. To invert the meaning of imagery from someone else’s belief system — in this case, to use the Christian sacrament of baptism into new life and the Holy Spirit as an image of death and demonic oppression — is, to say the least, darn rude. Speaking as a Christian, I condemn it for the aesthetic sacrilege it is.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.