At its most basic level, The Cell is a cross between The Silence of the Lambs and What Dreams May Come. Screenwriter Mark Protosevich has built his serial killer, Carl Stargher (Vincent D’Onofrio), from the all too familiar components of recent cinema sadists: His rituals and pathology are grisly and shocking but contain little that hasn’t been covered in dozens of recent films. Carl is even pursued with dogged determination by an FBI agent, Peter Novak (Vince Vaughn), who apparently has no life outside the chase.
The other aspect of the story is also familiar, given another growing subgenre of films (like The Matrix and The Thirteenth Floor) which can best be described as digital head trips. Catherine Deane (Jennifer Lopez) is a psychologist working in an experimental field, journeying into the unconscious of catatonic patients like the millionaire’s young son who mysteriously falls into a coma. Catherine’s gift is for interaction, drawing out the person whose mind has collapsed in on itself. After Carl captures another victim and imprisons her in a Plexiglas cell, he slips into “a dream he’ll never awaken from.” Catherine is called in to make contact.
Even though director Tarsem Singh shows a flair for visual storytelling throughout The Cell, it’s during the sequences where Catherine journeys into the fantastical unconscious terrain of her patients that he displays the stunning breadth of his imagination. These inner worlds are magnificently surreal landscapes, and Carl’s are suitably complex. Shifting from the harsh terrain of memory to baroque fantasies of omnipotence, they are rife with religious iconography and the particulars of his pathology (water plays an integral role).
In his first feature film, the Indian-born Singh (a veteran director of commercials and music videos) displays a masterful way of meshing different cultures and time periods into a new kind of phantasmagoria for our image-saturated world. Even though so much of The Cell’s storyline is woefully familiar, Singh’s images tap directly into our collective dreamscape. It’s cinema as a kind of vicarious acid trip, where we can commune with the unconscious from a safe distance.
Serena Donadoni writes about film and culture for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].