Directed by Mathieu Kassovitz. Starring Halle Berry, Robert Downey Jr., Charles S. Dutton, Penélope Cruz, John Carroll Lynch, Bernard Hill. (2003, R, 95 min.)
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., Nov. 21, 2003
Gothika features two of the world’s most beautiful women, Halle Berry and Penélope Cruz, and turns them sweaty and pallid, hollow-eyed and stringy-haired. (One can imagine Berry nudging Cruz reassuringly: "Don’t worry, the Academy loves this look.") The lack of glam is fitting – both are inmates at a state mental hospital – and it may mark the only time the hand of logic ever touches this horror-thriller hybrid. Initially, Berry’s Dr. Miranda Grey is on the other side of the glass, the psychiatrist to Chloe (Cruz), a convicted killer who rambles incoherently about what the devil does to her when the lights go out at Woodward Penitentiary for Women. Miranda urges Chloe to trust her, to which Chloe shoots back, "You can’t trust someone who thinks that you’re crazy." The lingering close-up of Miranda mulling this over ensures, in cine-speak, those words will come back to bite her on the ass something fierce, and it doesn’t take long. In short order, Miranda derails her car during a raging thunderstorm, encounters a mysterious girl on a bridge who bursts into flames, and wakes up three days later, in restraints, at the same psych ward she once ruled over. Fellow doctor (Downey Jr.) breaks the news that Miranda’s husband (Dutton) was axed to pieces the same night of the car accident, and all evidence points to his wife. Miranda, who receives nightly, not entirely friendly visits from the ghost of the flaming girl from the bridge, is having a difficult time deciphering if she’s going crazy or not, which allows for the occasional monologue on what is rational, what is real. There’s an interesting idea there – what happens to a women of science when she can no longer turn to a textbook for the answer? – but, disappointingly, this psychological brainteaser is tapped only to give Berry brief respites from all the running, screaming, and weeping required of her character, and by midway through the film disappears altogether. Granted, amid all that running, screaming, and weeping are some nasty scares; the preview audience experienced at least three moments of the time-honored "leap, shriek, and dissolve into embarrassed, communal giggles" – the surest sign I know of an effective thriller. French director Mathieu Kassovitz (The Crimson Rivers, La Haine) knows where to put his camera to maximize the fright factor, and the film, his English-language debut, is relentlessly stylish, sometimes to the point of irritation. (As the lights at the high tech institution flicker spasmodically for the 8 millionth time, one wonders, would it have killed them to pay the electric bill?) Kassovitz has crafted a film that is long on atmosphere, but short on smarts: Plot points are easily unraveled 20 minutes in advance (no fun sleuthing for the audience here), the ending is an unsatisfying pastiche off too many horror tropes, and it would take a week to plug all of Gothika’s gaps in logic, so riddled with "whaaaa?" moments is it (as in, how does Miranda escape not once but twice from her cell in a supposedly state-of-the-art facility? All together now: Whaaaa?). Did I leap, shriek, and groan with relief? Sure. But I also groaned with dismay at a film that simply didn’t demand enough of itself.