Whoever said there are no original stories left to tell is finally right. Gothika -- directed by Mathieu Kassovitz, the hot young French hyphenate (actor-writer-director, sometimes all at once), and starring Halle Berry in full-out, Oscar-caliber, scream-and-cry mode -- takes the last remaining one and blows it good. It's the sort of movie that ticks me off, for two reasons: first, because it lacks ambition, and second, because it didn't have to.
In fact, I think Gothika is exactly what Kassovitz, screenwriter Sebastian Gutierrez, and producers Joel Silver and Robert Zemeckis (their names alone cost $10 million a piece just to write) want it to be: an efficient ghost-story-cum-thriller about a young woman who sees dead people, and then some. At that they succeed, at least with the efficient part. And while I must confess that Gothika sometimes mustered up a bit of moisture in my undies, it isn't exactly the pants-pisser that I found The Ring to be.
Set in a mental institution and environs, Gothika swoops and swirls around Miranda Grey (Berry), a dedicated shrink who's happily hitched to co-shrink Douglas (Charles S. Dutton), and who's friends with Pete (Robert Downey Jr.), a colleague shrink who has the warms for her, but who cools his jets because she's married to the boss. As Miranda's story opens, she's counseling a disturbed patient, Chloe (Penélope Cruz), who insists she was raped in her cell (I mean, room) by the devil. "He opened me like a flower of pain, and it felt good," Chloe contends, in Cruz's piquant English. "And then I cut his Adam's apple in half like a piece of fruit on a summer day."
Now that's poetry. Unfortunately, Miranda is a scientist, so she knows this didn't really happen. It's just Chloe's way of repressing the memory of how her father molested her. "The ability to repress is actually a vital survival tool," Douglas tells Miranda as they smooch after Chloe's session. And then Doug goes home for the night because Miranda has some work to finish up.
After a good swim of 55 laps -- can you imagine being locked between those thighs? -- Miranda drives home on a dark and stormy night. There's a sinkhole in the road, so she detours across the old bridge. But she has an accident -- actually, a careless, because she was on her cell phone -- and lands in a ditch. But, but: Was that a young woman in the middle of the road when she swerved to avoid her? Miranda crawls up the embankment to see -- ohmygod! She approaches the frightened, half-naked girl, tries to wrap a coat around her, and then, suddenly, the girl bursts into flames!
Cut to a cell -- dammit, I mean room -- where Miranda is now a prisoner (I mean patient). She's been hysterical or catatonic for three days. At last, she's coherent, and Pete is her doctor. And her husband is dead. And she killed him.
From there, it's pretty much yadda yadda. Hollywood movies are made in what they call a three-act structure, and Kassovitz, obviously hungry for success, hits his three nails (along with us) squarely on their heads: After 30 minutes, we believe in ghosts; 30 minutes later, Miranda escapes (preposterously) so she can figure things out; and 30 minutes after that, it ends -- or concludes, because there's room for a sequel (as if).
Okay. Now vee may perhaps to begin, yes? You know from the very first dark, shadowy, fidgety image of Gothika that you're in for a movie that's more state-of-the-art than state of mind, despite the weighty psychobabble and leaden seriousness of it all. In fact, just about at the beginning of Act III, I tried to convince myself that Kassovitz meant it all to be a grand-mal parody of this type of movie. I mean, think about it: How likely is it that a small New England community would have two psychosexual rapist/killers -- one black, one white. (Town motto: We shall overcome.) And don't even get me started on the ghosts!
If Kassovitz had taken this material more (or is it less?) seriously, he might have had something lean, simple and eerily authentic. Imagine a tale of a scientist who discovers that ghosts really do exist, and who can't convince her colleagues that it's true. Why photograph this movie by having the ghosts constantly creep up on people? Why can't they just enter a room like normal -- well, you know. And who would dart around a room anyway when she knows there's a ghost in her presence? I'd stand with my back against the freakin' wall! As the tension builds, the music in Gothika swells like a migraine. Is that an organ playing, or is it just a big-ass synthesizer? Who can say?
The people behind Gothika either don't know much about psychiatry or simply have contempt for it. Not that there's anything wrong with that. But isn't it a little unfair to criticize a profession when it's up against supernatural forces? Freud may have been able to help Anna O. with her nightmares about hot dogs chasing donuts through a tunnel, but only because her dreams were real. Or maybe even Sigmund would have concluded that sometimes a ghost is just a ghost.