Yesterday I watched “The Cell.” 15 years late, but it was a great movie. The CGI was dated as hell (though impressive for the year 2000, I guess) and Vince Vaughn played a stock character straight out of a police procedural, but Tarsem Singh knows how to create visuals and he makes you feel empathy for a serial killer. Not sick fascination, like Hannibal Lecter, but empathy. And most importantly, there’s no quantitative judgement on psychological pain. We don’t end with the traditionalist message, “Crazy people are just weak people who made wrong choices.” Madness is portrayed as a deeply intimate force that corrupts according to its own internal logic, turning innocents into monsters.
One of the most telling scenes in the movie is the part where Carl Stargher, the serial killer, is apprehended. The FBI’s got SWAT teams surrounding his house. The editing and the music assure us that some serious shit is about to go down. If it were Buffalo Bill in there, he would escape down an underground tunnel. This would have led to some claustrophobic pursuit in which Vince Vaughn or Hank from Breaking Bad was nearly-fatally stabbed.
Instead, after everyone’s done showing off their impressive storm trooper abilities, they find Carl passed out on the kitchen floor, unarmed and naked. He didn’t have a glock in the knife drawer. He didn’t have an exit strategy. He was scrambling for some pills and then he went into a coma.
American culture is fascinated by the evil genius, the remorseless killer that is always one step ahead of everyone else. I suspect this is because America genuinely and desperately wants to believe that brilliant assholes run the world and that these assholes can either make money like proper capitalists or they can turn women into skin suits like freaks. The sad fact is, much as Hannibal and the Joker and Kevin Spacey all make for interesting villains, they don’t really embody what it means to suffer mental anguish. So, hat’s off to you, Tarsem Singh. “The Cell” totally makes up for “Immortals.”