The Sell

If only the secret were “Visuals, visuals, visuals,” Tarsem would be set.

When asked about the secret of developing a successful screenplay, a Hollywood insider once replied, “Write your script, then spend a year editing before directing it. Story, story, story.”

As this unnamed director was explaining, the importance of a good story as backbone for the spectacle of direction is crucial. But what about a film whose visuals are the story? This is quite a different animal indeed, and a more difficult one to sell. One doesn’t have to look very far to see where other films have dared to raise their image above their story. Lucas’ Star Wars Episode I: Phantom Menace comes to mind, but having created an endearing cultural phenomenon renders most serious criticism moot.

The latest film to really push the bounds of visual storytelling was this summer’s The Cell. Literally worlds away from childhood sci-fi fantasy, Cell is pure psychological drama. But this genre is no less crowded, with recent icons such as Silence of the Lambs and Se7en. The latter especially epitomized this new postmodern age of homicide thriller. Director David Fincher’s visionary chapter set a very high bar for all macabre cops-‘n-robbers flicks to come. His was a tight marriage of story with visuals.

At times, Cell follows the standard movie-by-numbers serial killer outline, which goes something like this:

  1. a killer is on the loose
  2. said killer’s last victim is still alive somewhere
  3. only the killer knows where the victim is
  4. solving the killer’s puzzle will free this last victim

Though it borrows heavily from both previous films, Cell takes a large redeeming leap into the ethereal. Its creator, Tarsem Singh, has been a music video director up until now and it shows. Some of these guys have a very unique eye for sensory imagination. Spike Jonze’s excellent Being John Malkovich certainly is a good example while Rupert Wainwright’s lamentable Stigmata is not. Win some, lose some.

Roger Ebert aptly noted that the invasion of Bollywood (the Indian Hollywood) into the American mainstream presents a fresh new air of movie making. He cited M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense and the upcoming Unbreakable) as another Indian filmmaker on the rise.

Tarsem joins Jonze for using his film as a showcase for his visual flair, making the homicide formula fresh again. The setup is familiar: Karl Stargher (devilish Vincent D’Onofrio) is a recently incarcerated murderer who also happens to be comatose. With the aid of a fringe psychologist Catharine Deane (Jennifer Lopez inhabiting the pretty-boy role Brad Pitt did for Se7en) and her state-of-the art research facility, Karl’s mind becomes as accessible as entering a room.

The source of danger is transplanted there as well. Inspired by Dreamscape, where dying in the subconscious dream world could have dire consequences in the physical, our heroine must hunt down Karl on his own turf — his brain. Unfortunately for Catharine, she doesn’t get spit out onto the New Jersey turnpike if Karl scares her to death.

Sharing the protagonist spot is Vincent number two, Mr. Vaughn. He’s a very long way from his breakout film Swingers. But then, he has stretched his acting wings as of late, most memorably in the underrated Return to Paradise. D’Onofrio is definitely the most pliable among the trio. He has the unique ability, shared by only a handful of other actors, to lose himself completely in a role. As Stargher, D’Onofrio morphs from impish loner to raving sadomasochist in under two hours, and somehow makes the transition believable.

To pull off these incredible dream worlds, Tarsem had the help of surrealist designer Eiko Ishioka. Eiko created similar hyper-fantastic visions for Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula. You can see her influence especially in the suits they wear before entering Stargher’s mind. Inside, the characters don many different costumes that reflect their emotions. At one point Stargher becomes the Lizard King, while Catharine embodies a Brazilian water goddess (the spitting image of the Virgin Mary, if you ask me). The images are at times assaulting and repulsive, yet strangely gothic and beautiful, as if a waking nightmare. Seeing is believing. It must be said that children should stay away from Cell at all costs. If it were up to me, I would have rated it NC-17.

Where Cell begins to unravel is not in its imagery but in its shallow plot. Rather than keeping his killer ambiguous like the anonymity of John Doe or the disturbed psyche of Dr. Lecter, Tarsem dissects Stargher with pop psychology. The film’s title refers to the automated water-filled cell Stargher uses to kill his victims. It also loosely refers to the psychological cell that Stargher himself has been placed into by his abusive misogynistic father and an abusive religious upbringing. Tarsem seems to lay waste to both culprits in one sweeping accusatory breath, and in so doing makes rather glib generalities. Could Stargher become the predator in this film as a result? Possibly, but there are many child abuse victims and spiritual devotees that never become homicidal.

If only the secret were “Visuals, visuals, visuals,” Tarsem would be set.

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