the-cell1In 2000, Tarsem (nee Tarsem Singh Dhandwar) was a popular and acclaimed director of music videos and commercials, working with R.E.M., Coca-Cola, Suzanne Vega and Nike. Tarsem’s debut film, The Cell, is an idiosyncratic take on the psychological thriller genre immersed in his own incredible visual style. And then something horrible happened: it became a blockbuster hit film with Jennifer Lopez. Now, that may not sound like the worst thing in the world, but imagine making one of the most visually innovative films in years, then having it relegated to being, “Oh, you mean that serial killer movie with J. Lo?”

Such has been the fate of The Cell. Though it received mixed reviews at the time (Roger Ebert was a stalwart fan but scored poorly on Rotten Tomatoes overall), The Cell came out just as Lopez was nearing her peak as an actress and singer, and audiences could be counted on to cram into theaters to see her after appearing in movies like Money Train (1995), Anaconda (1997) and Out of Sight (1998) Tarsem’s film was a dark, unpredictable assault on the senses, full of imagery evoking Damien Hirst and H.R. Giger. Not exactly what popcorn audiences might have been expecting. And though it roughly follows the formula of serial killer thrillers before it, it doesn’t feel like almost any popular film before or after it.

Much like The Silence of the Lambs (1991), The Cell has a plot with a built-in timer. A young girl (Tara Subkoff) has been kidnapped by a serial killer with a very specific and horrible methodology. The killer, Carl Rudolph Stargher (Vincent D’Onofrio), is the only one who knows where she is, and FBI agent Peter Novak (Vince Vaughn) must get the location before her time runs out. The twist? Stargher fell into a coma before being apprehended and is uncommunicative to any normal means of interrogation. So a radical attempt must be made, by sending Dr. Catherine Deane (Lopez), a child psychologist, literally into the mind of a serial killer. And that really does mean literally; in a science fiction twist on the genre, Deane is part of an experimental program that connects human brains together on the level of thought, immersing her in the psyche of people too physically or psychologically damaged to communicate.

the-cell2That’s the premise. But the hook of The Cell is the world inside Stargher’s mind. While Tarsem portrays the “real” world through restrained cinematography (courtesy of Paul Laufer), all cold lighting and minimal camera movement, the complete opposite is true of the mind Deane enters. Instantly, the visuals become different in every way, perfectly portraying the concept of entering an entirely new perception. Colors are more heavily saturated, both dark and brighter. The camera moves in unexpected directions, seemingly working on different laws of physics and reaction. And most fascinatingly and queasily, the world inside Stargher is a gothic mash up of memory and fantasy. Drawing most strongly on BDSM fetishism and Catholic imagery, a viewer is brought unflinchingly through images of his victims as both idealized, beautiful versions of themselves and horribly distorted, sexualized stereotypes. Almost as disturbing is his own self-perception; within himself, Stargher is separated into different, linked psyches, as a small child, as a self-aware adult and as a powerful monster-king.

The Cell does a remarkable job of balancing between a police procedural starring Vaughn and a horror-fantasia starring Lopez, matching and correlating scenes as the two do their best to rescue an innocent. And there’s the other twist of the film: while not giving excuses or rationalizes behavior, The Cell dares to actually examine the motivations and psychological damage behind the killer’s actions, even going to far as to express some sympathy for him. While some reviewers at the time decried this plot point (as though it were tacitly endorsing serial killing), it’s an angle of a popular genre that’s rarely seen or even expressed. Why does the killer kill? Is he simply pure evil, or is this just a damaged world?

Throughout the film, Tarsem liberally lifts imagery from the likes of the aforementioned Giger and Hirst (in particular , one of its most famous scenes graphically shows the bisecting of a living horse) as well as referencing the French science fiction masterpiece La Planète sauvage (1973). He even goes so far as to quote his own past work, with a nod to his iconic “Losing My Religion” video for R.E.M. But The Cell is far more than the sum of references and special effects, or simply a star vehicle for Lopez. It’s one of the most breathtaking debut films in recent memory, one that shows a mastery of style matched by its stunning visual sense. It’s a movie more successful than even its box office would suggest.

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