Gothika Review

by Jonathan F. Richards (moviecritic AT prodigy DOT net)
November 24th, 2003

IN THE DARK/Jonathan Richards


Directed by Mathieu Kassovitz

Rated R, 95 minutes

    It was a dark and stormy night at the asylum for the criminally insane...
    The opening of Gothika pretty much sets the tone for this creepy supernatural thriller-shocker starring Halle Berry as a prison psychologist who wakes to find herself trapped in a Kafkaesque nightmare on the wrong side of the bars. Dr. Miranda Gray (Berry) has just wrapped up work for the day with one of her more unsettling patients, Chloe Sava (Penelope Cruz), who raves that she is being raped in her cell by the devil.

    With thunder crashing and lightning flashing and the prison lights flickering and failing like the championship hopes of your favorite team, Miranda discusses the case in traditional cinematopsychobabble with the facility's director, Dr. Douglas Gray (Charles S. Dutton), who turns out to be her husband. "Chloe's mind runs on one track," he advises her, to which she quips "Well my mind's running on empty." After he leaves, she fends off some harmless flirtation from staff colleague Dr. Pete Graham (Robert Downey Jr.) and heads home through one of those downpours that confound the best intentions of windshield wipers.

    A washed-out road sends her on a detour, where she swerves to avoid a white-clad girl standing so stock-still in the middle of the road that she could be a cardboard cut-out. When Miranda climbs unhurt out of the ditch where she's crashed, and approaches the girl to see if she's all right, the girl spontaneously combusts, and Miranda reels away in glowing horror.
    And rightly so. When she wakes up three days later in shackles and behind the bars of her own institution, she's informed that her husband is dead, and that she is an axe murderer. As her husband was the popular head of the prison psychiatric staff, and the best friend of the local sheriff (John Carroll Lynch of Fargo) to boot, everyone seems to hold this little slip against her.
    So the familiar game is on. The falsely accused heroine (because come on, do we really believe Halle Berry could be an axe murderer?) has but the remainder of a 95-minute movie to escape and prove her innocence. What really happened? Is she crazy? Is she possessed? Does she see dead people? "I'm a rational person, I don't believe in ghosts," she says; then adds, forlornly, "But they believe in me."

    And who wouldn't? Halle Berry is a beautiful, talented actress. Here she has to do a lot of wide-eyed terror and screaming, most memorably in a group shower with a few dozen naked crazy women who flee toward the camera in an hysterical stampede. She also bounces off walls, and holds her breath impressively under water. But frankly, it's not the sort of challenge with which an Oscar winner makes a career move.

    Casting overkill may be one of the reasons why this entertaining, mildly scary horror flick has been lambasted by critics. Berry's costar is Robert Downey Jr., who when he's not in jail or rehab is one of America's best actors. His name in a movie's credits runs up a flag of anticipation. But this is far from his best work. He leans too much on his charming wise guy persona, except when he should be in his understanding doctor mode, at which point he gets belligerent and refuses to listen to Miranda. And this with a woman who a few days earlier was a respected colleague, good friend, and potential lover.
    The move is so full of those maddening horror movie "why doesn't he/she/they" moments that to list them would read like an Oscar acceptance speech. The answer, of course, is always the same: because if people (and spirits) behaved logically in these movies, they'd be over in fifteen minutes. But you do grow impatient with these frighteningly powerful entities from the spirit world who can unlock a jail cell or hurl a full-grown person across a room, but can't manage to scrawl a simple declarative sentence in blood on a wall.

    This is the first English language movie from French actor/director Mathieu Kassovitz (he directed La Haine and starred opposite Audrey Tatou in Amelie.) He does an earnest job with the genre conventions here, wrapping the proceedings in atmospheric darkness, splattering walls with blood, punctuating it all with screams and boo! moments and lacing everything together with scary music. There are a few possible suspects among the trusted authority figures. Gothika is several chills short of classic horror, and its underdeveloped story is strewn with silliness, but it will get the job done if you're in the mood for a few screams.

    "You can't trust someone who thinks you're crazy," Chloe tells Miranda in their therapy session in the first scene, and it is a warning which Miranda has ample reason to remember as her nightmare unfolds. As she begins to remember more of what happened on that fateful dark and stormy night, she may just find herself becoming one of them.

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