“I’m not deluded, Pete! I’m possessed!”
If there’s anything dumber than operating a mobile phone while driving a car, it’s operating a mobile phone while driving a car through a torrential rainstorm; an act committed in the opening sequence of Gothika by Dr Miranda Grey (Halle Berry), the criminal psychiatrist in whose travails we are supposed to take an intense interest over the following ninety minutes or so. I say “supposed” because, although the travails suffered by Miranda are indeed many and varied, the story in which they are embedded is so relentlessly illogical that it becomes increasingly difficult to care what happens to her. Now, after that statement, there might be some people out there making that tried-and-tested apology for horror films that just don’t work, Oh, but it’s a ghost story, it doesn’t have to make sense. And you know something? They’re wrong. If you’ll pardon the expression, dead wrong. It is disheartening to consider how many people making genre films today don’t seem to understand the two fundamental rules: (i) if you want people to swallow something impossible, give it a solid real-world grounding; and (ii) your supernatural events must at least make sense on their own terms. The flagrant disregard of these two maxims displayed by director Mathieu Kassovitz and screenwriter Sebastian Gutierrez suggests either a profound lack of understanding of the genre in which they have chosen to work or, more disturbingly, an equally profound contempt for it. Of these two undesirable options, I prefer to believe that the former is the case, because in its own small, murky, muddle-headed way, Gothika represents something of a landmark in the history of the horror film. For anyone disturbed by the all-too-frequently dismissive use of African American characters in horror films (you can die horribly early on, or be the Odious Comic Relief; it’s wide open!), the casting of Halle Berry in Gothika is remarkably gratifying. This is not to say that there haven’t been horror films before that starred African American actors, but rather that in most of them, their characters’ race was a major component of the story. In Gothika, Berry’s race, her character’s race, simply isn’t an issue: she was cast not as a black actress, but just as an actress. Moreover, there is no question that Berry is the out and out star of the film. There’s no token shared billing with the male lead here; Gothika is Berry’s film all the way, name above the title and all. What a pity it is, then, that these breakthroughs should have occurred in what is, in the end, a most unsatisfactory piece of film-making; and while this is certainly not Berry’s fault – or anyway, not entirely – it is unlikely that her participation in Gothika will do her career much good in the long run – and I say that fully aware that just around the corner lurks – ulp! – Catwoman….
(One thing before we go any further: it is impossible to explain just what is wrong – and, occasionally, right – with Gothika without resorting to major spoilers, so if you haven’t seen the film but plan to, you might want to scoot.)
The opening of Gothika finds Dr Miranda Grey at work at the Woodward Penitentiary For Women, in an analysis session with disturbed inmate Chloe Sava (Penelope Cruz), who murdered her abusive stepfather, and now suffers delusions of being repeatedly raped by Satan. The two woman fail to connect, and finally Chloe lashes out, trying to attack Miranda before being dragged away by security. Upset and frustrated by her inability to make ground with Chloe, Miranda visits the prison’s medical chief, Dr Douglas Grey (Charles S. Dutton), who is also her husband. The two share a comforting embrace. Later that evening, as Miranda heads for home through a blinding rainstorm, she finds herself at a roadblock manned by Sheriff Ryan (John Carroll Lynch), a good friend of Doug and herself, who explains that the road ahead has subsided, and who sends her home via a detour. Taking the back road, Miranda phones home to tell Doug what has happened and let him know when she will be arriving. As she crosses a bridge, however, she is confronted by the startling sight of a young girl (Kathleen Mackey) standing in the middle of the road. Swerving her car to avoid the girl, Miranda runs off the road and into a ditch. Shaken but unhurt, Miranda staggers up into the road. Approaching the rain-soaked girl, whose flimsy clothes are in tatters and who has clearly suffered a traumatic and violent experience, Miranda tries to explain that she is a doctor, that she can help. Suddenly, the girl reaches out, and Miranda screams as she is apparently engulfed in flames. She blacks out….waking three days later with no memory of what happened, to be greeted by the news that she has brutally murdered her husband, and is now an inmate in her own psychiatric ward….
The opening scenes of Gothika are certainly atmospheric. They can hardly help but be so, since the film was shot in and around an actual abandoned maximum security prison (which is scary enough as a prison, but, dear lord, as a place where mentally ill people are supposed to be cured - !?). The problem is, there is never a moment during this sequence when you can’t hear the gears grinding; everything that happens screams plot point! plot point! Let’s see: Miranda’s a champion swimmer; Miranda’s friends with Joe The Security Guard (that old chestnut, a passing inquiry about Joe’s wife); Miranda knows her way around the lesser-used corridors of Woodward; Miranda’s patients make Ominously Foreboding Remarks like, “You can’t trust someone who thinks you’re crazy”…. You get the idea. It’s also abundantly clear by about five minutes in that Mathieu Kassovitz chose to rely heavily in his direction of Gothika upon some of the oldest of horror movie stand-bys: Dark And Stormy Nights; generators that cut out at the most inconvenient times and the consequent flickering lights (which I’m sure wouldn’t bother a bunch of mental patients one bit, right?); shock-cut-accompanied-by-loud-noise jump scenes; and even, in due time, the sudden appearance of an animal for a cheap scare – a Spring-Loaded Owl, would you believe? Now, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with this stuff in and of itself (although I was irritated by the discovery that Miranda is yet another of those puzzling movie characters, People Who Will Not Turn The Lights On – the irony of that being, I’m writing this while sitting in the dark at my computer; but only because I’m too damn lazy to haul the ladder upstairs and change the lightbulb, not for “atmosphere”), just as long as it’s done right, and as long as there’s some substance beneath the tinsel. Unfortunately, in Gothika these tactics feel more like an attempt to distract the viewer from the gaping logic holes in the screenplay than anything else.
That said, if you’re susceptible to this kind of attack – and as I have confessed before, I very much am – Gothika’s spook-show is often quite effectively creepy, particularly in the rare moments when it actually tries for a bit of subtlety, like the ephemeral footprints on the prison floor. By about halfway through the film, however, the resident spectre has thoroughly worn out her welcome. Every time Miranda turns, or glances in a mirror, or looks through an observation window, or takes a swim – or just gets a close-up – there she is. (Shall I confess? Though there’s barely an instant when the ghost’s appearance isn’t heavy-handedly telegraphed – it still made me jump each time. Believe me, I’m just as embarrassed as I should be….) By this time we are aware of the spirit’s identity: she is, or was, Rachel, the teenaged daughter of the prison’s warden, Phil Parsons (Bernard Hill), who supposedly committed suicide some years before, but who in fact was abducted, tortured and murdered by a pair of serial killers, one of whom was (what did I say about spoilers?) Miranda’s husband, Doug.
(I gotta ask this: if Rachel was tortured as we see a later victim being tortured, if her dead body was found bearing the injuries we see upon her spirit – how on earth was her death ever classified as suicide!?)
Having reappeared as a vengeful spirit (why now? who knows?), Rachel proceeds to display some remarkably contradictory powers. Sometime’s she’s invisible, sometimes she isn’t. Since she is apparently able to “choose” when she’s seen and by whom, what’s the point? Sometimes she helps Miranda, sometime’s she seems to be doing her best to kill her. Sometimes she has the ability to open locked doors or control cars, and sometimes – witness the ten-minute chase through the spookier parts of Woodward Penitentiary – she seems content to let Miranda get on with it herself, even though the time lost and, presumably, the constant threat of Miranda’s re-capture are a hindrance to her plans. Sometimes her messages are direct enough, like the blood she lets drip upon a photograph of the Greys’ house in the country, while at others they are maddening oblique – as in her obsession with employing the cryptic phrase ‘not alone’ in preference to something that might actually be useful; like, oh, I don’t know, the name of the second perpetrator, maybe. It eventually transpires that Miranda did indeed kill Doug (and I like that the film actually had the nerve to make her guilty, however unwittingly; although of course it never deals with the real world consequences of her actions), while possessed by Rachel – which rather raises the question of why, if Rachel has such a power, she needs Miranda at all? Why not just possess the guilty parties and force them to confess, or to lead the police to the scene of the crime, or for that matter, to kill one another? The only answer I can think of is that Miranda’s supernatural experiences are intended as a kind of punishment….but I shall have more to say about that later.
Perhaps it’s too much to demand that a ghost behave with some kind of consistency; but I don’t think it’s too much at all to insist that the non-supernatural events in a horror movie bear some resemblance, no matter how vague, to what might actually happen in the real world. The outline of the film’s plot given up above should have been quite enough to clue you in on the central idiocy on which the film finally collapses, namely, Miranda’s incarceration in the Woodward psychiatric ward. The ward in which she used to work. In the prison where her murdered husband also worked. Under the care of her colleague, Dr Pete Graham (Robert Downey Jr), who just happens to be in love with her. And if that’s not enough to swallow, how about the fact that she’s not even kept in isolation, but thrown in with the other patients? Her former patients. One of whom tried to strangle her three days earlier. Oh, and just to top it off – the investigation into Doug’s murder is being conducted by Sheriff Ryan, widely known to be Doug’s best friend.
I mean, please, people!
Okay, I realise that the story doesn’t work (well – it doesn’t work anyway, but you know what I mean) if Miranda isn’t kept in her own prison; and this contrivance does lend the film a nightmarish quality, in the literal turning of Miranda’s world upside-down. Had this section of the film been handled in a more surrealist manner, perhaps calling Miranda’s sanity into question, it could have been most effective. There are hints of this, granted, such as the instantaneous mutation of Irene, the head nurse, from “efficient” to “Nurse Ratchett”; but Gothika is too keen to get to its spectral visitations to bother being truly ambiguous, leaving us to puzzle over the fact that although until three days ago Miranda was a well-liked, well-respected, thoroughly grounded member of this very community, not one of her friends or colleagues is prepared to treat her as anything but an utter loony, or to express the slightest doubt as to her guilt, even just as a protest – despite the fact that no-one ever gets around to suggesting a motive for her supposed crime. (Oh, sorry, I forgot: she’s an utter loony, right?)
By the way, if you think that this might be the point of the film at which Chloe’s admonitory remark about how you can’t trust a person who thinks you’re crazy comes back to bite Miranda on the butt, give yourself a gold star. If you think Miranda might even quote Chloe verbatim, give yourself two gold stars. Gothika is Miranda’s (read: Halle Berry’s) story all the way, so it is of course necessary that no-one believe a word she says until the very end, at which point they can show up to tell her how very sorry they are for not having listened to her sooner. This role falls to the unfortunate Pete – although how he gets from researching tattoos online to showing up just too late to be useful and uttering the inevitable apology, the screenplay never does make clear….
And yet, strange to say, none of this is my real complaint against Gothika, which is, rather, that the entire film is underlain by a streak of absolutely rabid anti-intellectualism. It’s one thing to have an essentially rational individual finally concede that there are indeed more things in heaven and earth; it’s quite another to infer that to use the mind, to reason instead of to feel, is a waste of time, not so say outright dangerous – which is precisely what Gothika does. The tone of the story is set in the opening scene, during which the disturbed Chloe tells Miranda that she cannot help her, because “you’re not listening with your heart, only with your head”. From this moment on, Gothika sets out to prove that “thinking” is a vastly overrated activity, by disproving everything that Miranda – and her colleagues, of course, although as a woman Miranda is naturally twice as culpable – has devoted her life to. It is “logic”, you see, that makes the staff of Woodward so ready to believe in Miranda’s guilt. They, the fools, are prepared to make up their minds on the strength of “evidence”, whereas if they’d followed their “feelings” – Pete, in particular – they surely would have believed in her innocence. (Pete does eventually learn his lesson, allowing his “feelings” for Miranda finally to dictate his behaviour.) So set against anything outside their rigid frame of reference are they, the staff of Woodward can’t even recognise a supernatural event when it occurs before their eyes. One of the film’s more eyebrow-raising moments has Miranda – Dr Miranda Grey, staff psychiatrist, that is – stripped and forced into a communal shower with her former patients. (I am very ambivalent about the staging of this scene. I appreciate that they avoided the usual “women in prison” nonsense of having no-one but supermodels in the shower, but it is all too obvious that only bit players with “real world” bodies are fully naked on camera, and not the film’s two female stars. Miranda does finally collapse in single-shot, but assumes a graceful foetal position that keeps her, uh, “swordfish” well hidden.) Rachel stages an attack here, slashing her favourite phrase not alone into the flesh of Miranda’s arm – an event that the watching staff interprets as self-mutilation, even though no blade is found, even though the writing is immaculate despite Miranda throwing herself around like a Whirling Dervish throughout her ordeal, even though they must have seen that Miranda was not cutting herself!! Man! – that’s some stubborn belief system they got there! The only thing that beats this for sheer absurdity is a later scene when Rachel invades Miranda’s cell, picks her up, and demolishes the entire room using Miranda’s body as a sledge-hammer – the security guards watching on their monitors (who can’t see Rachel) not at all bothered by Miranda’s sudden ability to fly through the air!
(Okay, while we’re talking absurdity…. Am I the only one irritated as hell by the physical invulnerability of movie characters? I was serious when I described the demolition of the cell: Miranda is smashed into walls, through furniture, flung around like a rag-doll….yet when the guards finally check on her, she is able to jump to her feet and run away, no injuries, and not a mark on her. And again, later, Miranda falls from a chain fence onto a concrete floor, landing on the point of her hip – and is instantly up and away, no problem. Oyyyy….)
Despite her colleagues’ refusal to budge, Miranda herself is rapidly converted into a believer in feel-don’t-think. After her dismissal by Chloe in the opening scene, Miranda runs to her husband, who comforts her by quoting psychiatric platitudes at her. But a few days of forcible restraint and sedation later (and I’m trying very hard to believe that the scene of Robert Downey Jr holding Halle Berry down and pumping her full of drugs wasn’t someone’s idea of a sick joke), Miranda has learned the error of her ways. When Pete has the temerity to quote those very same platitudes that Miranda was so attached to only days before, she angrily dismisses them as “that psychological shit!” Later, alone at night, Miranda demands a practical demonstration of the fallacy of her beliefs, announcing herself to the thin air to be “a scientist”, to be “rational”, and to believe in “logic” – and not, repeat not, in ghosts. “But if you are a ghost,” she concludes, “prove it by opening my cell.” And Rachel being the obliging type, open it she does – and thus, farewell to science, to Miranda’s faith in logic, and as far as I can see, to the psychiatric profession as a whole. Gothika’s opinion of the intellect is clear in its central conceit of a serial killer living and operating amongst a group of psychiatrists, none of whom sense anything wrong. (Unsurprisingly, when Miranda finally breaks loose in the prison, it is not any of her professional colleagues who help her, but good old blue-collar Joe The Security Guard who, presumably not having had his brain addled by a college education, is able to believe in her “instinctively”.) It is from this background, I think, that the sense that Miranda is being punished by Rachel springs – she should have felt Doug’s guilt, dammit! – never mind that in reality there have been numerous instances of serial killers living undetected in society. The conclusion of Gothika sees not only Miranda whole and hale, but Chloe also, and in record time. See what happens when a psychiatrist learns to “listen with her heart”?
(Ah, dear. Every time I think I’ve pinpointed the “most absurd” moment, I think of another: in this case, it’s that Miranda hacks one person to bits with an axe and – while “herself” – puts a bullet through the head of another, yet apparently walks away scot-free. I guess her explanation that “I’m not deluded, I’m possessed!” worked better on the jury that it did on her potential future boyfriend.)
Gothika should have been a better vehicle for Halle Berry than it is: the script gives her plenty of chances to emote, but very few to actually act. Still, it’s not hard to imagine what attracted her to the project, considering the amount of solitary screentime that was on offer. And the script does a lot better by her than it does by any of the other actors. Robert Downey Jr is to be particularly commended for making something believable of a characterisation not only thinly written in the first place, but which suffers further from the fact that Pete Graham is the story’s red herring. One of the film’s better moments comes when Miranda, still amnesiac, tries suspiciously to determine what exactly her relationship with Pete was – or is. Downey’s quiet, sad-eyed observation that Miranda was “the boss’s wife” says more about the pain of unrequited love than any amount of ranting could. But again, this simply underscores the utter lack of faith in Miranda shown by all of those around her, even those with the most reason to believe in her. Of the rest of the cast, only Penelope Cruz makes much of an impact; she seems to have had a whale of a time playing the film’s psycho-sister. As for Charles Dutton--- I seem to recall saying once that I’d never seen Bridgette Wilson in anything where she didn’t die horribly, and right now I’m having the same experience with Charles Dutton, this year’s contender for The Shelley Winters Award For Most Onscreen Deaths. I was actually impressed at the beginning of the film that they’d gone for such a cinematically unlikely pairing as Berry and Dutton, and apparently placed them in a happy relationship. How could I have been so dense? That would have required a bit of nerve on the part of the screenplay, and a bit of originality – and if there’s one thing Gothika isn’t, it’s original. At heart, the film is a shameless hodge-podge of just about every other supernatural thriller of recent years, stealing its ghost from The Ring and its plot mechanics from A Stir Of Echoes and What Lies Beneath, while its kicker ending – you just knew there’d be a kicker ending, right? – plays like a mean-spirited riff on The Sixth Sense. The ending also, in context, makes no sense whatsoever – and as such, is a perfectly fitting coda for this film.
And just for the record---no, I don’t know what “Gothika” means, either.