Film Reviews: Wednesday, November 19, 2003
Insanity Defense

Despite its stupidity, Gothika still serves up major scares.


Mathieu Kassovitz is primarily known in France as a fine actor (he’s the guy who wins the girl’s heart in Amélie), but he’s also shown talent as a filmmaker in his native country. His Hollywood debut, Gothika, is in the same vein as his preposterous, operatic 2001 serial-killer movie The Crimson Rivers, and his style looks much less strange in a Hollywood setting than it does in a French one. Still, it’s that style that turns what might have been a derivative piece of crap into an entertaining, cheesy horror flick.

It stars Halle Berry as Dr. Miranda Grey, who works in the psychiatric ward of a women’s prison. As she’s driving home one rainy night, she stops to help a blonde girl who’s wandering in the middle of the road. The doctor loses consciousness, and when she comes to three days later, she’s a patient in her own ward, accused of using an axe to murder her husband (Charles S. Dutton), who was also her boss. Her fellow psychiatrist (Robert Downey Jr.) has to help her piece together what happened during her blackout. In the meantime, the blonde girl keeps appearing to her. Like many ghosts in movies like these, she’s there to show the doctor something, but unlike the other ghosts, she’s able and willing to hurt Miranda to do it.

The movie’s biggest problem is that it’s really stupid. Why the doctor is kept in the same ward as the women she used to treat is just one of many holes in the plot. A former patient of hers (Penélope Cruz) seems to know what’s happening to Miranda, but then the character disappears from the second half of the movie until she pops up again at the end, when she’s somehow been cured. Sebastian Gutierrez’ atrocious dialogue doesn’t help matters. (“You are listening with your brain, but not your heart.”) The identity of the bad guy, and the extensively evil things that he’s doing, don’t jibe with anything we’ve been told about him.

Yet despite the film’s absence of story logic, it has long stretches that are scarily persuasive. Helped by cinematographer Matthew Libatique (Requiem for a Dream, p), Kassovitz gives the setting a lush, beautiful look to go with the director’s sinuously graceful camera movements. He manages one of his trademark swooping crane shots even in the claustrophobic confines of Miranda’s prison cell, the site of a couple of harrowing scenes in which the ghost appears to her in that tiny space. (For her part, Berry does a fair job looking frightened out of her mind.) While Kassovitz isn’t above saying “boo!” for a cheap thrill, he concocts some genuinely unsettling montages to represent Miranda’s returning memory. He also does some cool, innovative things such as a sequence that runs backwards from the murder to the initial meeting on the road. His movie may not make much sense, but its cinematic élan and suspense make Gothika the scariest horror movie out of Hollywood this year and a stimulating glimpse of a foreign talent who’s come to America to play.

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