Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Whatever Wednesday: ‘Gothika’

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I’m not sure how to classify Gothika other than luridly trashy in all the best ways. It’s the type of movie that matters only while you’re watching it. Afterward, it sits comfortably in your memory but never really bothers you until someone mentions the title in conversation and you break out into a grin and nod, “Yeah I’ve seen it. Isn’t it great?”

Matthew Kassovitz gives us a movie that takes the adjective “preposterous” and runs with it. The script by Sebastian Gutierrez is powered by contrivance and half baked narrative leaps of logic, tied together with spit and prayer. Except, somehow, the two manage to create a palpable atmosphere as well as some damning commentary on race and gender.

In other words, Gothika isn’t a good movie but it is fun and fascinating in equal measure. The main thrust of Gothika is relatively simple. Dr. Miranda Grey (Halle Berry) works at a prison psychiatric ward who wakes up one morning and finds herself an inmate after she is accused of murdering her husband Douglas (Charles S. Dutton).

Toss in possessions, ghosts, and serial killers and you have yourself a cockamamie thriller running on an plot engine mere seconds away from exploding. As ridiculous as Gothika is though, Kassovitz somehow keeps a steady hand. For as convoluted as the story gets, it’s impossible not to feel that Kassovitz and Gutierrez know where they’re going.

Part of the charm of Gothika is how even though it’s turning one improbable supernatural screw after another into its psychological melodrama, it is still making a solid point. This is no way to treat the mentally ill. Not to mention it would be obtuse to overlook the fact that the staff of Woodward Penitentiary, the Psych Ward, and hospital are largely white and male. The nurses are women but they side with the male gaurds every time.

Before you go thinking I’m reading too much into what is meant to be pulpy trash, I would remind you that pulpy trash has a long and storied history of being transgressive in its social commentary. I’m not saying Gothika is a cinematic treatise on the crumbling of American institutions due to the prevalence of white supremacy. But I am saying the film isn’t shying away from those implications. It leans into them, the exaggerations themselves acting as the critique as opposed to specific narrative themes.

Amid all this hullabaloo there is a subplot with one of Miranda’s patients, Chloe (Penelope Cruz). She confides to Miranda that she is being raped by the Devil at night. Miranda chalks it up to Chloe’s subconscious and prescribed medication.

Repetaledy Chloe tells Miranda that no one is listening to her, or the other patients, Miranda sure isn’t. Miranda soon discovers that someone is sneaking into the women’s cells at night. The realization is important, not for the plot, but to Miranda. Gutierrez’s script is deeply troubled by the state of America’s institutions in dealing with mental health, and this is back in 2003.

The script straddles a line between trash and gothically lurid in both dialogue and visuals. The opening line, “He came back again last night and tore me like paper. He opened me like a flower of pain and it felt good.” 

Like all Gothic tales, there is a sense of sensuality bubbling underneath the surface. But it’s rarely ever exploitative. Though Berry’s hospital outfit seems more fitted and revealing than the other prisoners. However, when the movie takes the last final few dark turns, it has the good taste to shift away from that tendency.

Gothika even hints at a possible romance between Miranda and her friend/doctor Pete (Robert Downey Jr.) At one point while Downey is attempting to check her blood pressure, he and Miranda dance around buried desires and alternate futures where the two are a couple. John Ottoman and Lior Rosner’s score swells as Kassovitz frames the two in the window of the interrogation room, with lightning flashing outside. The whole thing feels like something out of Ghost but done deliberately.

Cruz, in contrast, so often used for her looks rather than talent, is allowed to dress down. The lighting is intentionally unflattering. The close-ups of her face highlight her splotchy skin and red nose. 

The relationship between Chloe and Miranda becomes a plot thread. Miranda the disbelieving skeptic and Chloe as the misunderstood believer. Berry and Cruz’s time together onscreen is some of the movie’s best moments, as more experienced Chloe tries to help the more skittish and anxious Miranda.

Gothika is lensed by the modern-day crown prince of darkness Matthew Libatique. Shots are awash with light blue and harsh whites, giving us the feel of the unforgiving overhead luminescent lights of the institution. Libatique and Kassovitz work together to create a truly atmospheric movie that absorbs even as it shows us the patently absurd.

The exterior shots of Woodward Penetiary, set against dark storm clouds, calls forth a feeling of dark foreboding. Libatique frames Miranda’s struggles to drive home on a dark and stormy night feel almost Hitchcockian. He wallows in Miranda’s psyche, creating an atmosphere of anxiety and confusion.

None of this works, however, without Halle Berry. Berry is a movie star who I feel has never been as big as she should be. She has that fantastic quality in an actor in which she gets us immediately on her side. We root for her and empathize with her even as we roll her eyes if she makes a stupid decision.

Add to that her charisma and the fact that she’s a damn fine actor. Berry sells every ludicrous moment and every unbelievable twist. She makes the unbelievable just believable enough so Kassovitz can introduce the next absurdity.

You may have noticed I have danced around a lot without mentioning specific scenes. That’s because doing so would only confuse the issue. I could tell you about the scene in which Berry meets a girl in the middle of the road in the middle of a roaring thunderstorm by the old wooden bridge. Heck, I could even mention how the girl then catches fire and engulfs Berry’s Miranda in flames before she wakes up inside the prison. But it wouldn’t make a lick of difference.

Gothika is the type of movie that if you’ve seen it, then you know. If you haven’t, then going on and on about particular scenes would only confuse the issue. Though I will go so far as to mention a scene where Berry hides underwater after escaping from her cell for the umpteenth time, while the guards lurk around the pool searching for her. Libatique and Kassovitz demonstrate a wonderful ability to create tension and suspense using the most tried and true tropes while seemingly keeping them oiled so they don’t squeak as they go through the motions.

Though, there is a chance many may see part of the ending coming. It’s hard no to. I mean, come on, you don’t cast John Carrol Lynch in your movie unless you’re going to use him in the final act.

Lynch, it must be said, is beautifully unhinged and over the top. The final scene with Berry is the perfect mixture of too much and just enough for what the movie calls for. Deranged, wild-eyed, and deeply amusing, Lynch’s Sheriff Bob Ryan is a role tailor-made for the character actor.

The ending of Gothika, it could be argued, is a twist too many. In 2003 it may have seemed too far fetched or overly melodramatic. But in 2020 with popular culture saturated with true crime podcasts and documentaries and the MeToo movement in full swing, it seems somehow implausibly plausible. 

All storytelling is a magic act and film is no exception. Movies like Gothika are in many ways more impressive in their feat. Entertaining and honest about what they are, they walk a tightrope. By the end, we have been fooled and manipulated, but we are happy; for that is why we bought a ticket in the first place.

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Image is courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

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