Director: Alejandro Amenábar
Screenplay: Alejandro Amenábar
Starring: Ethan Hawke, Emma Watson, David Thewlis, David Dencik, Dale Dickey, Aaron Ashmore and Devon Bostick
Rated R / 1 hour, 46 minutes
February 5, 2016
(out of four)
Maybe it's the genre expectations, maybe it's the subconscious imagery, maybe it's the he said/she said dynamic of the whole narrative, but whatever the case, Regression always feels like it's got something big up its sleeve. Like the characters inhabiting this tale of deep, dark secrets in a rural Minnesota town, the film behaves as if it's holding onto some buried truth it's almost too ashamed to reveal; as if it won't be able to rest easy until it's finally gotten something off its chest.
In which case the real surprise is that Regression really has nothing of the sort. Sure, there are key revelations in the plot, some of which you might even think of as "twists." The film begins with accusations that are either real or they're not. Those accusations lead to the supposed uncovering of secret Satanic cults, which are either real or they're not. By the end, both of those questions have been answered - no more and no less. Nothing particularly dramatic has been revealed. Nothing out of the ordinary has occurred, at least not outside the bounds of the admittedly scandalous territory in which the story itself resides.
The details, as we first hear them, are heinous. Seventeen-year-old Angela Gray (Emma Watson) hesitantly, painfully recalls how she was sexually abused by her father (David Dencik). Stranger yet, John Gray seems to corroborate the accusation - or at least he insists to the local cops that it must be true, because he knows his daughter would never lie. That he initially doesn't remember the assault(s) is a source of confusion for him, and yet he's resolute in the belief that he must have done it. In time, he comes to remember.
But that single accusation balloons into a hysteria linking John Gray - and other people around town - to a Satanic cult, the acts themselves being ritualistic rapes. And from ritualistic rape we eventually get to ritualistic murder. Babies killed at the altar. Cloaked figures in white makeup bathing in sacrificial blood. An increasing number of demonic supplicants doing increasingly evil things.
Tasked with dealing with all of this madness is Bruce Kenner (Ethan Hawke, playing a cop as usual), the case's lead detective, and simultaneously the strongest and weakest element of the film. Hawke's sensitivity and anxiousness as an actor give the film the jittery tension it needs as things begin to unfold and unravel; the problem is, as written, his character is an absolutely terrible cop. What and who he believes at any given moment, what choices he makes, what leads he chooses to follow and how - all of it has entirely to do with the script's requirements and almost nothing to do with how this man actually thinks. I believe in giving wiggle room when it comes to the motivations and decision-making of movie characters, but in this case, the character is rather an embarrassment - a fact only obscured by Hawke's skill as an actor.
Among those on the outside looking in, the other key figure is Dr. Kenneth Raines (David Thewlis), a psychiatrist specializing in a certain form of regression therapy, which vaguely refers to certain controversial, dubious methods of memory recall. That the film concludes with a series of title cards explaining and condemning the history of such therapies in the early 1990s rather explicitly implies that the movie thinks it has something substantial to say on the subject, despite all 106 minutes of evidence to the contrary.
Indeed, Regression does gradually begin to fixate on the power of suggestion and the fungibility of memory as its subject matter, calling into question the scope of the crisis, if not its validity altogether, while concurrently trying to keep Hawke's character convinced that he's being stalked by the aforementioned cult.
Writer/director Alejandro Amenábar (The Others, The Sea Inside, Abre los Ojos) makes the crucial decision to show us characters' memories as vividly as he can. This has pretty wildly divergent pros and cons; it is his most significant filmmaking choice, for better or worse. By showing us exactly what various characters remember (or think they remember), he makes those experiences as real for us as they are for them; they can't be dismissed as mere stories. Not showing us those memories would perhaps be a more daring approach, forcing us into a more ambiguous space - where we can only judge things from a distance, the way we might any juicy true-crime story we follow in the news - but only at the expense of a sense of visceral tangibility.
Considering the film's general point of view, I get why Amenábar chose the former tack. It seems to primarily serve the horror motives rather than the story itself, so it's no surprise that the movie works better as a scattered exercise in nightmare imagery (which, intermittently at least, is effective enough) than as any kind of thoughtful examination of religiously based hysteria, nor the fragility or susceptibility of the human psyche. In whatever moments Regression hits on something, and to whatever degree, it certainly never turns out to be the cautionary tale it seems to think it is.