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April 2, 2007

Movie Review – Gothika (2003)



Gothika starts off with a promising title sequence that subtly hints at danger and impeding tragedy through moody music. The opening that follows is a bare bones setup that proceeds in rapid fashion. Dr. Miranda Grey (Halle Berry) is a psychiatrist at a local asylum; her coworker is Pete (Robert Downey Jr.), and she has a loving husband who also happens to run the hospital. Driving back home on a stormy night, she crashes her car to avoid running down a mysterious girl in the middle of the road. The film then flashes forward to a few days later and we discover that: Miranda’s husband is dead, she’s the primary suspect in his murder, and that she’s been committed to the very same asylum she used to work at. Oh the delicious irony!

The complicating factor here (you knew there had to be one) is that, despite the ample evidence to indict Miranda, she insistently claims innocence and resolves to fight her unjust imprisonment by solving the crime herself. Her stance is unsteady due to her own confusion over the circumstances. Miranda suspects that her husband’s demise is somehow tied to the girl she witnessed that night on the road, but the police deny finding any evidence of such a young woman’s presence. As if this baffling development wasn’t enough, a string of haunting visions, bloody messages, and poltergeist-style attacks further confuses our heroine’s investigation. The devil showing up doesn’t help matters much either. Gothika is a murder mystery that’s better classified as a Wha’happened, instead of a Whodunit.

Your enjoyment of this puzzle will then depend on your ability to swallow its improbable premise and several inadequately set up plot twists. For example, doesn’t it border on absurd that Dr. Grey would be confined to the hospital she had just been working at? It’s treated as being such a matter-of-fact development here. Wouldn’t there be a conflict of interest amongst the staff and a possible danger to Miranda as a result of her being placed with patients who already have a thin grasp on reality? “I thought you were my doctor. Get away, foul thought projection! Stab!”

I suppose that, in this case, questions about the legal system’s competence should give way to a burning desire to see the heroine terrorized in the nearest convenient place of vast creepiness. This setting is made appropriately unworldly thanks to the film’s sterile gray-blue tones and the director’s (Mathieu Kassovitz) occasionally use of Fincher-esque camera movements that take us down vacant halls and through glass doors. Besides, if Miranda wasn’t back at the asylum where she started, she couldn’t work with glib Pete and loopy ex-patient Chloe (Penelope Cruz) to unravel this mess; a series of teleconferences probably wouldn’t have had the same impact.

From an acting standpoint, I would have liked to have seen more of Downey’s and Cruz’s characters. Both make the best of their small roles and offer tantalizing glimpses of deeper characterization that the movie seems content to skim past in order to focus on Miranda’s plight. Berry, while a beautiful leading lady, doesn’t really have much to do here besides dash about in prolonged chase scenes and look scared. Her Gothika performance is about as weighty as the single chemically induced tear she sheds at the film’s halfway mark.

Honestly, Gothika really wasn’t what I desired. I was hoping for a reality-warping head trip with Miranda never truly knowing whether she was sane or insane. Instead, I got a fairly straightforward, sometimes eerie, supernatural thriller. Still, it’s an idea with potential that I was willing to run with, and run I did – until the disappointing ending smacked me square in the face. The saddening part about the finale is not necessarily how poorly it was executed, but how tiny its impact was. Had a bit more thought been put into the writing of the beginning and middle, I think I could have had my socks knocked off by the conclusion. Big, shocking revelations about characters need adequate exposition with said characters beforehand in order for the surprises to have any effect at all. Like most, I appreciate knowing what sort of animal the magician actually had in the box in the first place before the curtain’s whipped off to reveal it’s been “transformed” into a rabbit.