Combustible Celluloid
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With: Halle Berry, Robert Downey Jr., Charles S. Dutton, John Carroll Lynch, Bernard Hill, Penelope Cruz, Dorian Harewood, Bronwen Mantel, Kathleen Mackey, Matthew G. Taylor, Michel Perron, Andrea Sheldon
Written by: Sebastian Gutierrez
Directed by: Mathieu Kassovitz
MPAA Rating: R for violence, brief language and nudity
Running Time: 98
Date: 11/13/2003

Gothika (2003)

2 Stars (out of 4)

Forget About It

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Gothika is one of those horror movies that starts by weaving an intricate and elaborate mystery, then suddenly gives up and writes the whole thing off. It raises but never answers a very good question: Why would anyone go to all this trouble?

All the trouble comes when Dr. Miranda Grey (Halle Berry) wakes up after three days in a catatonic state, a patient -- and a prisoner -- in her own hospital. Apparently, she murdered her husband and the head of the hospital, Dr. Douglas Grey (Charles S. Dutton), but has no memory of the deed.

Her colleague Dr. Pete Graham (Robert Downey Jr.) tries to help, but doesn't believe her when she recalls seeing the ghost of a dead girl just before losing consciousness. And Penelope Cruz co-stars as Chloe, Miranda's unstable patient who warns Miranda of coming danger.

Without giving too much away, Miranda turns out to be a pawn in someone else's game. Why she was chosen and how she was manipulated is never made very clear, even though the bad guy has one of those Scooby Doo explanation scenes at the end -- complete with maniacal laughter.

In other words, this movie doesn't make a lick of sense.

French director Mathieu Kassovitz makes his English-language debut here, after the very Hollywood-like thriller The Crimson Rivers and the notorious art-house hit La Haine (a.k.a. Hate). He concentrates heavily on atmosphere, creating a hospital lit in grays, dull blues and pale greens, complete with buzzing, malfunctioning fluorescent lights. ("Damn generator!" Miranda says by way of explanation in one scene. "Fourth time this week!")

When the happy prologue suddenly ends and just before Miranda wakes up in her hospital cell, Kassovitz smashes a hole in the picture with a sick thud and a kind of thick, eerie silence. He holds it for just a second longer than expected, and it makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.

But Kassovitz also relies on ages-old shock-cuts and jump-scares without managing to build any actual suspense. In one shot, a bird actually flies out at Miranda from the darkness. How old is that one?

As for his treatment of American actors, he gets horrible, hysterical performances from both John Carroll Lynch, best known as Margie's husband Norm in Fargo, and Cruz, who, in truth, has the film's most hideous dialogue to read. Thinking she's been raped by the devil, she tells Miranda, "He opened me up like a flower of pain." Huh?

Kassovitz should probably have a better handle on this kind of thing, being a veteran actor himself. He made his screen debut in 1979 and has appeared in strong films like The Fifth Element, Amelie and Birthday Girl.

Still, he can't manage to squelch the extraordinary presence of Berry or the awesome talent of Downey. Berry gets a kind of wide-eyed sweetness into her learned character, and we latch onto her immediately and for the duration. (It helps that she's uniformed in very chic and sexy hospital scrubs that reveal her lovely bare midriff from time to time.)

But Downey is a true virtuoso, a Mozart of the screen and unquestionably one of the greatest actors of all time. Not only does he take Sebastian Gutierrez's painful dialogue and make it sound fresh, but he can also take a lazy, stupid expositional scene -- such as the one in which he explains Miranda's condition to her -- and give it urgency.

Downey has always been great in bad movies. And Gothika joins Natural Born Killers, One Night Stand and In Dreams as hard proof that he is invulnerable to mediocrity.

Unfortunately, Gothika itself wallows in it.

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