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One of the very first film genres to be embraced by the movie going public was the thriller, a film that will keep you on the edge of your seat, make your heart pound and your breath stop. Now, these films have, for the large part, gone in the same direction of a sibling genre, the horror film, and have degraded into slice and dice epics of blood. With Gothika there is a movement towards a return of the more psychological thriller, one where you have to actually pay attention. While it is true that the actual plot has some problems, there are inconsistencies and some lack of exposition but with a thriller the audience is often called upon to suspend belief, to surrender to the experience. Miranda Grey (Halle Berry) the chief psychiatrist in a prison. She has devoted her career to help rehabilitate the harden inmates. Along with her co-worker Pete Graham (Robert Downey Jr.) and new boss and husband Douglas Grey (Charles S. Dutton) they have a routine that is comfortable even in this most unlikely environment. On a proverbial dark and stormy night Miranda falls victim to a car accident as she swerves to avoid hitting a young girl standing in the middle of the rain drenched road. (Please insert your own Halle Barry auto accident joke here.) Naturally, she passes out and when she awakens she is now in her own prison, convicted of murdering her husband.

In order to achieve any level of enjoyment for this film you have to forget that the lead is an Oscar winning actress and just go with the flow. There is a lot of attention paid to the style without much concern for substance. Now don’t get me wrong, there is a need for films that just provide a scare and this film has potential as such a flick. It is more like an attempt to recreate the feeling of a nightmare and in that context the film works. It will give a shock or two but you don’t have to be concerned with the fact that little actually makes sense. This is the largest fault in the film. In order to be successful as a psychological thriller there has to be an underlying logic that can grab the audience and permit them some means to empathize with the plight of the main character. There is a feeling of dread that pervades the film but without a definitive source and direction it strays from the course it should have taken. What would have helped here is a subtle use of cohesive plot. There should have been some clues given the audience to help hold our attention and make us care about what comes next.

Berry is the kind of actress that has been willing to take on almost any kind of roles. Like many Oscar winners she has paid her dues with some real bombs but carries on as a major talent. Here she tries her best but the dialogue is so mundane that there is little for her to work with. Yielding to a trend for beautiful actress to take on unattractive roles, Berry is ultra-thin, often dirty and borders on repulsive. This does give a contrast with her appearance before that fateful night. Downey has that mischievous quality that endears him almost immediately to any audience. Here there are devilish undertones to his portray of Doctor Graham. You feel you should suspect him but his underlying bad boy nature makes you feel it is too obvious a choice. There is a good chemistry between Berry and Downey, one that gives this film more than it actually deserves. Penelope Cruz plays an overly articulate inmate. Through her accent descriptions of her plight are overly poetic, completely inconsistent with the character she is portraying. Dutton has always been one of my favorite character actors, able to present any role with dedication and professionalism. Over his long career he has made the best of some really bad flicks. Here even his talent was hard pressed.

Mathieu Kassovitz as the director here depended more on the lighting and setup shots than on an actual script. Like Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon style overwhelms substance here. To create a workable thriller the cinematography should support the mood, create an environment for the story and draw the audience into the plot. Here style is about all there is to go on. Kassovitz is, without a doubt a talented director but with Gothika he allowed the visual to become more important than the story. He does create a nightmare world, one that will creep out most viewers but pulls away from anything you can get your mind around. There is attention paid to the all important pacing of the film. Suspense builds slowly, allowing the audience the expectation of more than is actually delivered. If this movie had a real script writer the use of pacing would have given us something special indeed. Kassovitz is obviously heavily influenced by some of the greats of the genre. Perhaps a better consideration of what made these films work would have improved matters here.

All things considered the disc was fairly well mastered. I enjoyed the surround experience during the pre-requisite stormy night scene. The room is filled with the sounds of the storm. There where places in the sound track that were somewhat muddy, lacking clarity. All six speakers are given justice and provide a balanced sound stage. The video was very good, not unexpected considering this is a very recent film. Many scenes are murky but that is most likely intended as part of the atmosphere. There was some edge enhancements noted but overall the borders are clean. There is a commentary track available that does have the tendency to ramble a bit. This feature would have been more interesting if addition insight to the production choices where provided. There is also a music video of Fred Durst performing ‘Behind Blue Eyes’ that has an energy lacking in the actual film. Some may find this presentation a guilty pleasure but for true, die hard fans of the genre it is an overall disappointment. Like many films currently out there the potential is not met.

Posted 2/12/04

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