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Review by Andrew Manning (8/00)

Release: 2000, New Line
Starring: Jennifer Lopez, Vince Vaughn, Vincent D'Onofrio
Director: Tarsem
MPAA Rating: [R] violence, nudity, sexuality, language
Genre: Thriller/Horror
Running Time: 107 minutes

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Child psychologist Catherine Deane (Lopez) uses technology to enter the comatose mind of serial killer Carl Stargher (D'Onofrio) and makes her way through disturbing visions in order to uncover the location of his latest victim.


A fairly typical murder mystery with some average performances is redeemed by director Tarsem's extraordinary vision: grotesque extravagance and psychologically disturbing imagery of the highest quality are brilliantly melded to produce a rare masterwork of captivating visuals. The Cell is a strong contender for our Editor's Choice Award of 2000.


I've watched hundreds of films in my lifetime, and I have to say that virtually all of them failed to be visually gripping to me--which is ironic, considering how the visual aspect is embedded into the very definition of a motion picture. Special effects that look impressive are one thing (and abundant in Hollywood), but images that have the power to evoke emotion by their nature alone are few and far between in mainstream films. Before it got overblown with hype, a good example of such imagery was the house in The Blair Witch Project. It wasn't overtly reeking of evil, it was just subtly unright in a way that gave you the creeps when the camera first stumbled upon it. And as the camera staggered through the rundown building, you glimpsed scrawled numbers and small handprints on the walls. Those were visuals that made you look and made you think things.

Such evocative imagery is virtually non-existent at the movies. Music videos are a more hospitable playground for such pictures, but even in that venue they are still rare. Fortunately for those of us who enjoy being freaked out by such things, The Cell is loaded with such disturbing visuals.

The basic story of The Cell is somewhat pedestrian, and can best be described as a watered down version of The Silence of the Lambs. Playing the part of Clarice Starling is Jennifer Lopez, a child psychologist who has the technology to enter people's minds. And playing Hannibal Lecter is Vincent D'Onofrio, a serial killer named Carl Stargher who holds terrible secrets in his insane membrane. Stargher has a particular habit of abducting people, tormenting them, and finally placing them in something called "the cell," a transparent cube that fills with water and drowns the victim within. Early on in the movie, he's caught by the law. But that's the beginning of the fun, not the end. The problem is that he goes into a coma, leaving the authorities helpless to find his latest victim, someone who they have reason to believe is still alive. Enter Lopez: her ability to take a virtual reality tour of the human mind suddenly makes her the best hope for recovering the victim. They reason that if she can enter Stargher's comatose brain, she'll be able to find the information they need to save the killer's prey.

This is where the story takes a left turn into the Twilight Zone, and where the movie really has a chance to shine. Unbound from reality, the world inside Stargher's brain is unlike anything the big screen has ever seen before. And for that, we have director Tarsem to thank...

For those keeping score, Tarsem was the director of the award winning music video for R.E.M.'s "Losing My Religion." Wrought with powerful symbolism and a unique interpretation of a song that was admittedly not about religion, Tarsem's work was hailed as breakthrough. Now he's taking that talent, bumping it up a notch, and throwing it at the silver screen in his motion picture directorial debut. And the results are utterly spellbinding. With expert genius, he envisions Stargher's mind as a place plagued with the most conflicting of images: things that are richly extravagant, yet horrifically grotesque at the same time. That feeling of unright that I spoke about earlier permeates this film. Once we get inside Stargher's head, the movie takes on a whole new definition, transcending from a typical crime story to an endless museum of disturbing pictures.

Tarsem uses a variety of camera gimmicks to add to the mood: cuts, lighting, and even upside down shots make for a screen you simply can't look away from. Unreal creatures, outrageously luxurious costumes, and unnatural movements are some of the hallmarks of this virtual freakshow.

Jennifer Lopez looks hot throughout the movie, even though her performance is adequate at best. Stealing most of the scenes is Vincent D'Onofrio, the most engaging character of the film if only because he gets to play the psycho killer. Once the descent into his insanity begins, we see him depicted as a hideous, impish ringmaster. My editor adds: "As someone who has always had an unnatural fear of clowns, I believe the movie plays on such phobias. Tarsem taps into imagery from childhood fears to fuel the unease The Cell evokes." In one particularly quick and disturbing scene, a freakish D'Onofrio comes skulking up behind a little boy in a darkened room.

As it stands now, The Cell is the leading candidate for the Editor's Choice Award in our annual movie awards. Fight Club was the winner last year.

While the story isn't much to write home about, The Cell nevertheless is a rare movie that exploits the full potential of its medium. It's simply chock-full of images that linger in your mind and leave a disturbing impression. And just like the dichotomy of the beautiful vs. the hideous that bleeds from the very film, you'll be torn between two impulses: to be horrified by what you're looking at, and to hunger for more. The Cell truly brings an uncommon level of artistry to the filmmaking industry.


As stated earlier, Jennifer Lopez's performance isn't anything groundbreaking. Worse yet, Vince Vaughn's character, an FBI agent involved in the investigation, feels like a simple, token good guy role to counterbalance D'Onofrio's villain. The story, which plays out like The Silence of the Lambs all over again, is the weakest link of the film, if only because it seems so tired and familiar. And while that's usually a dealbreaker for a movie (after all, story is traditionally important), it really takes an insignificant backseat to the images presented.

Rating: 8.5 out of 10 (0=Abysmal, 5=Average, 10=Excellent)

1999 Editor's Choice Award
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