Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Gothika



USA 2003 : Matthieu KASSOVITZ : 96 mins

Acclaimed criminal-psychologist Miranda Grey (Halle Berry) works at the remote hilltop Woodward Penitentiary alongside her husband Doug (Charles S Dutton), who runs the place, and her flirtatious colleague Pete (Robert Downey, Jr). The institutions all-female patients include delusional Chloe (Penelope Cruz), who tells a skeptical Miranda she’s being violated by a satanic figure. Driving home one dark and very stormy night, Miranda has a scary encounter with a traumatised young woman (Kathleen Mackey) she finds standing in the middle of the road. She blacks out, waking up three days later incarcerated in a cell at Woodward Penitentiary, having apparently murdered Doug with an axe. As Miranda struggles to fill in the blanks in her memory, she’s plagued by further terrifying visions of the spectral young girl a vengeful phantom, or a manifestation of Mirandas dubious sanity?

The Hollywood debut from Kassovitz (best known as the boyfriend of Amelie, though better in Birthday Girl) finds the French actor-director much closer to the lurid territory of his last movie, Euro-smash chiller-thriller Crimson Rivers than his first, the hard-hitting, Cannes prize-winning La Haine (1995), which now seems like a very long time ago indeed. Here he stirs a heady, blood-spattered, red-herring-strewn brew of murder, retribution, sado-masochism and madness, played out in a shadowy night-world of sinister, dimly-lit rooms and cells. After all, the film isn’t called Gothika for nothing.

Actually, the film is called Gothika for nothing: its a made-up word which is never once spoken or shown anywhere in the movie, instead intended to evoke a particular kind of heightened mood and genre. Just like the film itself, audiences sort-of know what the title means, even if, on reflection, it doesn’t make any sense at all – as Miranda remarks near the end, Logic is overrated. Gothika may be fundamentally a very silly piece of work (e.g. for such a brilliant psychologist, Miranda is ridiculously fond of labelling people crazy) but at least Kassovitz and his scriptwriter Sebastian Gutierrez are fully aware of this fact, and make no bones about it.

To tip us the wink, they have penitentiary guards watch Gordon Douglass legendary giant-ant shocker Them! (1954) on TV, commenting Those fifties B-movies, man! Gothika isnt much like many fifties B-movies, however. Its more like a combination of Sam Fullers delirious Shock Corridor (1963) in which a reporter gets himself committed to an asylum to solve a murder, with unfortunate results and Gothika co-producer Robert Zemeckiss What Lies Beneath an intriguing, watchable whodunnit which disappointingly spirals off into daft, anything-goes supernatural territory.

But Gothika is, primarily, a glossy, fancily-cast (Cruz, Downey Jr, Bernard Hill) big-budget update of those British woman-in-peril psychological chillers from the 1960s and 1970s, in which the likes of Susan Strasberg and Judy Geeson doubted their sanity under the nefarious influence of devious/scheming relatives/spouses. Its a somewhat disreputable sub-genre to which Marc Forster paid deft tribute a couple of years back with Everything Put Together (featuring a Geeson cameo). Since then Forster has moved on to much bigger (if not better) things, in the shape of Monsters Ball – whose Oscar-winning star was, coincidentally enough, Berry. Though not undertaining, and quite emphatically a star-vehicle, Gothika represents something of an ill-advised retrograde step for the supposedly now-respectable thespian: presumably she signed before the Academy elevated her to the classy A-list. Then again, perhaps not next up, Catwoman!

2nd April, 2004
(seen 31st March : UGC, Middlesbrough)

by Neil Young