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Touchy Feely Torture and Violence 

The Cell (R)
New Line Cinema

The Cell is an elegantly styled psychological thriller where visually ambitious macabre settings take precedence over character development. Creepy dreamscapes and funky color-schemes give a nod to suspense thrillers like Seven, and The Silence of the Lambs. While the movie contains some riveting shock value imagery inside the mind of a serial killer, there is never any doubt about how the story will end. The Cell stays with you after you see it, but the extravagant imagery doesn't hold a candle to David Fincher's Seven for terror, dread, and suspense.

Catherine Deane (Jennifer Lopez) is a psychologist specializing in an advanced neurological process that allows her to connect with patients through their subconscious mind with the aid of formfitting suits that resemble exposed musculature of the human physique. Serial killer Carl Stargher (Vincent D'Onofrio) is captured by F.B.I. agent Peter Novak (Vince Vaughn) moments after falling into a coma in his house, leaving his latest victim confined in a booby-trapped cell on the outskirts of town. The bulk of the story explores the dark territory inside Stargher's mind as Catherine risks her sanity by interacting with the killer's subconscious attempting to locate Starger's last victim in time to rescue her.

Debut feature director Tarsem Singh has an exacting eye for mise-en-scne but spends more time ogling spectacle than executing actual suspense. Singh's approach lacks a necessary cynical disregard for Hollywood's cookie-cutter plot line. And if anything, The Cell goes too far in representing the plight of the poor, pitiful serial killer.

As a horror or suspense film, The Cell falls short by pulling its punches in refusing to live up to the creepy and volatile standards it lays out. Stargher has metal rings pierced into his back which allow him to suspend over his victims as they expire. The rings tugging on Stargher's flesh give the movie its most grotesquely shocking scene even if it seems unlikely that Starger would be capable of stringing himself up without any outside assistance.

Vincent D'Onofrio is surprisingly potent in fleshing out the different demonic personas of Stargher. D'Onofrio takes his physicality and movements into the realm of a Bauhaus performer. In using different voices and physical postures, D'Onofrio gives an astoundingly inscrutable performance that blanches the movie with a cold, stark energy. Jennifer Lopez gets caught, by her own exotic beauty, as the odd man out between Vince Vaughn and D'Onofrio. Vaughn is so perpetually sleep-deprived and manic in a Dashiell Hammett way that Lopez isn't skilled enough as an actress to effectively play off his loose energy. Lopez never breaks through to the audience on the human level that her character is supposedly so adept at with her patients. Clarice Starling increased the fear factor in Silence of the Lambs because she was clearly in over her head. In The Cell, Catherine Deane is an exterminating angel capable of anything except getting soiled.

As a fetishistic thrill ride The Cell stands in a class by itself. Scriptwriter Mark Protesevich could easily have pushed the story over the edge of terror but chose instead to back away from any bloodshed that would have emotionally impacted the audience. The filmmakers and actors seem so mesmerized by a romantic view of the nightmares the story weaves that they can't follow through with the film's menacing threat.

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