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Human fascination with the macabre and the uncanny forms the psychological raison d’etre for “Smile,” written and directed by Parker Finn. Sharply crafted with the intellect and intuition of a studied horror buff, Finn’s feature-length directorial debut uses the image of a distorted smile as a springboard for a successfully blood-curdling, if not wholly revelatory, film.
Doubly traumatized by her mother’s suicide and by a shocking event involving one of her patients, psychiatrist Dr. Rose Cotter (Sosie Bacon) begins to be tormented by a leering, ill-intentioned entity that takes the form of people she knows. The storyline is certainly not the most original and follows the expeditious structure of an investigation — undertaken by the haunted protagonist — of previous victims in an effort to learn about and break free from a curse (the acclaimed “It Follows” (2014) employs this same structure). Still, the movie’s premise smartly capitalizes on the all-too-human glee and fear induced by the image of the uncanny smile, which is already a common motif in the horror genre but used with full force in Finn’s feature debut.
Indeed, the sudden image of a menacing grin powers several well-executed jump-scares throughout the movie, although they do become more and more predictable as the rhythm of the film becomes familiar to the audience. And yet there’s no doubt that at least some viewers will be screaming bloody murder in their seats, due in large part to the godly work done by Cristobal Tapia de Veer on the film’s soundtrack. Through music, the supernatural voice in “Smile” erupts so explosively, violently, and terrifyingly at key moments, that audiences can’t help but feel physically swallowed up by the monster’s chorus. Even in less eventful scenes, Tapia de Veer shapes a leitmotif that foregoes the subtle and instead underscores the intense and heavy omnipresence of the supernatural.
So “Smile” succeeds in being scary — which, for some audiences, is all a horror movie needs to do. But for a film that presents itself as a meditation on mental illness, “Smile” doesn’t really come at the topic with any fresh ideas: cinematography- or narrative-wise. Wide overhead tracking shots and Dutch-angle stills indicative of a detached and decidedly supernatural perspective have become such standard tools for the craft of modern horror movies that their unironic use nowadays — as is the case with “Smile” — comes off as uninspired. Still, Finn finds such a compelling symbol of horror in the abject smile that the banality of the cinematography can be written off as an eager, first-time director’s homage to the historical stylistic methods of the genre. Besides, cinematographer Charlie Sarroff’s work, although transparent and questionably executed, at least reads as thematically apt. Blurred-background commercial close-ups nonetheless demand a closer scrutiny on the part of the viewer towards characters’ facial expressions and the emotions and intentions hidden beneath them.
Less forgivable is the superficial way the script treats the inescapability of mental illness and the stigma that frequently comes with it. As a psychiatrist, Rose Cotter is laughable, since her particular brand of therapy for her patients lies in rote assurances and in a surprisingly unempathetic approach to dialogue. A combination of cliché scriptwriting and hollow delivery keeps the audience doubtful, at the beginning, of Sosie Bacon’s ability to inhabit her character. Once Bacon loses this detached facade, however, and embodies the anguished and terrified woman Rose later becomes, she erases all initial doubts with a commanding and often heart-rending performance. Due in part to Bacon’s acting, “Smile” forms an effective meditation on the sheer anguish produced by the anxiety of a haunting and a confrontation of one’s own (inevitable and in this case, ritualized) mortality.
“Smile” especially struggles with its un-nuanced depiction of the social consequences of mental illness via the deteriorating relationships of the “insane” — Rose, her suicidal mother, her patients, and the other victims of the evil, leering entity — and the “sane,” represented by Rose’s fianceé, her millennial caricature of a sister, and her sympathetic cop ex-boyfriend. It’s hard to take the film’s stance on mental illness seriously when the “sane” hurl such juvenile insults such as “nutcase,” “headcase,” and the inevitable “crazy” at Rose. The supporting characters’ dogged and even comical refusal of empathy feels dissonant with the fastidious commitment to realism deployed in Rose’s emotional journey, and displays a sort of tepid half-heartedness towards — even an appropriation of — the subject of mental health for the sake of appearing cerebral.
Although “Smile” fails to evince any artful portrayal of mental illness, it at least succeeds in a more fundamental, instinctual task of the horror genre — to scare, and to scare thoroughly. Ticket-holders, beware: Watch at your own peril.
—Staff writer Debby Das can be reached at email@example.com.
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