Tarsem Singh has worked too hard to play second fiddle to Spike Jonze. Back when he was known only by his first name, director Singh scored multiple awards for his TV commercials and music videos, including a memorably elegiac clip for R.E.M.'s "Losing My Religion." But small-screen rival Jonze beat him to the box office with last year's Being John Malkovich, a stunning debut that successfully expanded Jonze's fascination with public image into a fresh and exciting cinematic vision.
In his own first feature, "The Cell," Singh apes the "Malkovich" theme of Freudian mind-mapping. Instead of infiltrating the subconscious of a celebrity, however, he takes us into the psyche of a serial killer, a comparatively ordinary gambit that alerts us to the many disappointments to follow. For all of Singh's facility with visual renderings, he's chosen to hang them on a story that seldom amounts to more than "The Silence of the Lambs" for dummies.
Screenwriter Mark Protosevich (also the film's co-producer, and unsurprisingly a first-time scribe) distances himself from "Lambs" all of a few inches by splitting the character of Clarice Starling in two. The sensitive, feminine side is represented by Catherine Deane (Jennifer Lopez), a psychologist who's involved in a bold experiment in "transcendental science." Within the recesses of a high-tech research lab, she's hooked up to a one-of-a-kind machine that allows her to become a regular visitor to the brain of Edward Baines (Colton James), a comatose young boy whose dreamlike interactions with Deane are his only contact with the outside world. These traumatic sojourns leave Deane bedeviled by real-life nightmares, which she quells by kicking back at home and smoking a big, fat blunt. (Let's just blame Puff Daddy for this one, OK?)
Though intrepid, Deane is no Starling in the crime-busting department. That role is filled by Peter Novak (Vince Vaughn), an FBI agent who's hot on the trail of serial killer Carl Stargher (Vincent D'Onofrio). Novak's prey is a tormented sicko who kidnaps young women and imprisons them in an automated holding tank that fills slowly with water. After they've drowned, Stargher bleaches their skin white and dumps them in public places where their bodies are sure to be discovered by the authorities. Deep down, he wants to be captured. Don't they all?
Novak quickly traces Stargher to his home, but before the murderer can be pressed to reveal the location of his chamber of horrors -- where his latest victim awaits a watery fate -- he slips into a stupor that's similar to the noncommunicative state of the young Baines. Even a coma patient can discern where this is all leading: Deane is conscripted to venture into Stargher's mind and cajole him into revealing the crucial address.
Stargher's imagination is a twisted realm wherein he holds the mantle of a sadistic king. It's Singh's cue to let loose with tableaus of torture that rival the "Hellraiser" movies, offset by quasi-spiritual iconography that's a little too recycled for comfort. The extended shots of rain falling into pitchers show that Singh hasn't lost his religion at all; he's merely stored it away for further use. Still, every setup is picture-perfect, and as close to high art as mainstream cinematography gets.
Those sterling visions would carry even more weight were they in direct contrast to the story's outlying realities. But Singh can't bring himself to waste any time on the mundane. Even a plainly functional scene of FBI agents running across an airfield is shown in ethereal slow motion. We viewers don't always need poetry; sometimes a simple sentence is enough.
Lopez wears a series of peek-a-boo outfits that she tops with shiny lip gloss, making her look less like a mental-health professional than a receptionist at a seedy law firm. Vaughn tries to make Novak appear earthy and haunted, mainly by breathing heavily and peering distractedly at the horizon. Even Brando couldn't do much with the dialogue Vaughn has to emit: Staring at a photo of Stargher, Novak remarks, "You're a bad man, aren't you, Carl?" Phooey.
"The Cell" is bound to inspire much controversy for its preoccupation with S&M trappings and other forms of violent misogyny. No matter how artfully those predilections are presented, the criticism is well founded. It isn't Stargher's mind we're exploring, but Singh's. One hates to ask where he gets his ideas -- it makes us sound like concerned parents. But the suspicion persists that he's actually getting off Stargher's perversions, not condemning them. Inside his head is an unsettling place to be.