Friday, January 13, 2017

Regression

Why The World Is Wrong About "Regression" (the movie, not the psychological technique)

Regression (2015/2016)
Dir and written by Alejandro Amenábar
Starring Ethan Hawke, Emma Watson, David Thewlis



I’d like to take a moment to tell you why everyone in the world is wrong about REGRESSION. The world did not take to REGRESSION. This was a movie which was received so badly that it didn’t even generate some quote-worthy vitriol, didn’t inspire hate or condemnation. Just the kind of mild, sustained annoyance that comes from having someone dull waste your time for 106 minutes. And I can completely understand that reaction, first of all. Our buddy Dan P pretty much had that exact reaction, an escalating exasperation for a film so completely empty of anything good it feels marginally insulting, like the filmmakers must really think you, personally, are an idiot if they thought this was going to be good enough to get the job done.

I understand that reaction, as I said. But I don’t agree. I think I sort of loved it. Which raises the very legitimate question of whether or not I’ve finally just become some sort of Armond White internet movie troll, who has to instinctively size up the collective reaction something is going to get and then puckishly assert, with a certain anarchic brashness, the exact opposite. I do wonder about that sometimes. I loved LOST RIVER, for crissakes, and nobody loves LOST RIVER. I doubt even its creators would be willing to put forward as full-throated a defense as I would. But I swear to you, if this is indeed what has happened to me, it’s not intentional, nor is it conscious. Honest, I really prefer to agree with everyone. I argue because I must. If I have become a troll, it was not by choice.

No, I think the problem is that I just watch too many movies. I’d guess that I average more and a movie a day, and in October significantly more. Watching that many movies is not normal or healthy, which are issues to mull over in themselves. But aside from being socially and emotionally crippling, it also has the effect of gradually reshaping the very act of watching movies in itself. You can’t watch that many movies and expect most of them will be good. The majority of movies you watch are terrible, and gradually you see so many of those that even when a decent version of the same crap comes along, it’s so utterly rote and predictable that it can be hard to get too jazzed about. Eventually, you notice that the things you enjoy have drifted alarmingly far from anything that anyone you know enjoys, or even understands. You gather friends to watch your new blu-ray of HOLY MOUNTAIN and are genuinely surprised that they find it completely alien and unpleasant. And one day, you finally realize that the problem is not them, it’s you.* You’ve finally seen so many movies that the traditional metrics we use to define successful cinematic “art” have almost no real impact for you anymore. You don’t really care if something is “good” or “bad” anymore, because you’ve seen it all so many times you barely notice it. The only thing that gets a response from you are movies which have even some small little detail which is different. And they may well be terrible in nearly every other way, but you gradually find yourself preferring that to normal movies which are technically competent but depressingly generic.



I say all this, because inherent in that method of examining cinema is something fundamentally meta, if not out-and-out postmodernist. To identify works which have something unique and interesting about them implies a deep awareness of what our expectations are as viewers, and a deep awareness of the way cinema, as a narrative medium, is typically constructed. It’s the reason obnoxious people like me sit in a movie theater and immediately tell their viewing companions what the twist is going to be in every movie they see a trailer for, with near-certainty. And it’s the reason that I was able to perform the feat of deeply enjoying REGRESSION. You see, this is a movie with twist. (Maybe). But my entire enjoyment of the film stems from correctly identifying that twist not just from the trailer, not just from the first few minutes, but from the fucking box art. If you too see exactly what the movie is up to, I think you might enjoy it, for reasons I will explain. If you somehow fail to see the twist coming, I can only surmise that you will feel insulted and furious. The question is, then, just exactly how obvious is all this really supposed to be? Does writer-director Alejandro Amenábar (ABRE LOS OJOS, THE OTHERS) know that we know, but still plays along for a very clever thematic reason, or does he think he’s smarter than us and totally pulling the wool over our eyes?

This question of intent is pretty important in trying to evaluate REGRESSION, but there’s no way for me to speak to this issue without talking about the so-called “twist.” So consider yourself warned, I guess, but then again, there’s probably no way to enjoy this without knowing the twist, (which frankly you’re about to figure out anyway from the brief plot description I’m about to give), because you’re an adult human being who has seen a movie before. Here is the plot of the movie, without the spoiler:

This story is inspired by true events. The year is 1990.

Ethan Hawke (SINISTER, BOYHOOD) plays Minnesota Detective John “Reg” Ression, one of those movie cop detectives who can be counted on to go too deep into a case until they’re exhausted and dreaming about the case and have to make one of those big complex charts on a bulletin board with string linking together all the suspects and clues. In this case to change it up they have him do that in notebooks and chalkboards instead of on a bulletin board, which is about as close to shaking up the usual formula as the movie ever dares to get. The particular case he’s about to get Too Deep into revolves around Angela Gray (Emma Watson, a 26-year-old British child star, making about as convincing a 14-year old Minnesotan hayseed as she’d make an MMA champion), who claims she’s been raped by her pathetic, fundamentalist dad John (David Dencik, TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY). Dad seems a little unhinged, but he swears his daughter is telling the truth… except that he doesn’t remember anything. Suspecting a repressed memory, the detective enlists the help of psychology professor Ken Raines (David Thewlis, THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU) to try and unlock the memory through a new method called hypnotic regression. Under hypnosis, John does remember the incident… only, he also remembers there was someone else there. Someone wearing a black robe. Uh oh. Soon, other people under hypnosis also start to remember black-robed figures, including some prominent townspeople. Before you know it, our heroes find themselves enmeshed in a sinister Satanic conspiracy which just might go all the way up to Hillary Clinton (they don’t mention her specifically, but it stands to reason).



Except that (spoilers start here) they don’t, obviously. I feel weird using the word “spoiler” for knowledge which it would be insulting to suggest you didn’t infer from that plot setup, and especially weird for using the word “spoiler” for knowledge which can only improve the film, but that’s the odd position I find myself in. See, it’s obvious from frame one of REGRESSION that this is going to be a twist movie, and equally obvious there can be only one twist to come out of this premise: Angela is full of shit, she made up the whole thing and then it spiraled out of control because regression hypnosis is a bogus pseudo-science. Which you would probably have to assume anyway (even if you knew nothing about movies) because you are (hopefully) already familiar with the “real events” the movie is referencing: the Satanic Panic, which gripped the US in the late 80’s and early 90’s, ruining many lives and making heavy metal seem way cooler than it actually is before ending with a whimper when people suddenly realized it was total horseshit. While this year’s #pizzagate debacle taught me that there are, in fact, many people who did not learn a lesson from that national disgrace, I have to believe, for my own sanity, that most Americans do not need to watch a Hollywood thriller to learn that Satanic conspiracies are not real. But even if they did, having a total 180 twist ending would still be a frustrating narrative device.

There’s a million movies that end with this kind of infuriating movie-negating twist, going most directly back to PRIMAL FEAR (which seems to have lit the fuse on the modern mindfuck thriller, which was then thoroughly and irreversibly exploded by THE SIXTH SENSE) but originating at least as far back as THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI in 1920. In fact, it seems like every fucking thriller these days feels the need for some kind of mindfuck twist, regardless of how nonsensical or pointless it makes the entire movie which came before it. But as twists go, this one is particularly insipid, because of course it completely repudiates almost the entire movie which came before it. All those scary moments where we think we glimpse hooded figures, all those nightmares about satanic baby sacrifice… none of that happened. We just watched a film in which nothing happened, in which the main characters got really scared about nothing, and no forward progress whatsoever was made. I think you can begin, now, to see why this was such a frustrating and irritating viewing experience to most people. And nothing about the way it approaches this material seems to indicate any hint of awareness of how obnoxious it is to shoot a completely conventional horror-thriller and then rescind the entire thing in the last ten minutes. Particularly when the actual horror-thriller part is very much in the standard paranoid hint-don’t-show mold, and consequently almost completely lacking in money shots or genre payoffs. If you’ve already figured out that there’s nothing real going on here, there is desperately little in the movie that hasn’t been repeated so often in this genre that it barely even has any meaning anymore.



But ah, therein lies the possible brilliance of the film. Everything about its premise and execution is so completely conventional that it seems almost archetypal. You have your over-the-line cop, you have your shadowy conspiracy, you have your tough-but-caring sergeant, you have your uncaring system which doesn’t believe our heroic detective’s intuition, you have your damsel in distress. And everything plays out exactly the way you’d expect it to… except that you already know that this is going exactly the opposite way the characters think it is. That forces you to experience the story from a critical perspective instead of a narrative one.

Regardless of whether it was intended or not, this has the clever effect of completely undermining all the expected conventions of this sort of film. You’ve seen a million films where the over-the-line detective shakes down an uncooperative suspect in custody and gets too aggressive with him and the other officers have to step in and drag him away. But we accept that it’s just because he cares too much, that he’s frustrated because he knows he’s right, but the evildoers are trying to slip their way out of justice. We know that, because we understand the conventions of this genre. They use our expectations about cinema to assure us that it’s OK, he’s the good guy. Here, though, we can’t hide behind that comfortable assurance -- this particular suspect in police custody is almost certainly completely innocent, and we’re watching the “hero” of the movie violently abuse someone who can’t possibly give him the information he wants.

This ingeniously turns the entire framework of the movie on its head, forcing us to re-experience every expected beat of this familiar cinematic contrivance, except with the knowledge that our heroes are wrong and they’re actively making the world worse the harder they try to get to the bottom of this non-existent mystery. It’s a meta horror movie superimposed on a conventional horror movie, and that creates a particularly unsettling dissonance which I’ve never quite experienced before. Poor Detective Ethan Hawke knows he’s in a horror movie; he just doesn’t realize that it’s not the one he thinks he’s in. He thinks he’s the hero, and everything about the way his story is presented backs that up, makes us understand exactly why he would think that. He has absolutely no idea that he’s actually the villain, which is what makes him so much more dangerous and tragic. He’s crossing the line in his desperate effort to do the right thing, and we can only watch in horror as every step he takes ruins more lives and brings him further away from the truth (Hawke’s near-mega intensity just makes his folly all the more believable).**  



It’s a terrifying cautionary tale of how easy it is to get stuck on the wrong track and still convince yourself that you’re right. And, crucially, it makes sense to us, because it’s entirely presented in a context with which we’re already powerfully familiar. In a normal version of this movie, the detective would be completely right, and that’s how he experiences these events. We’re watching the movie he thinks he’s living through, except with the knowledge that it’s all wrong. We can understand why he does what he does, because he does exactly what you’d expect him to in a movie like this. It’s just that this time, he’s eventually going to have the legs completely cut out from under him. That’s the genius here: it’s a subversion of a modern mythic narrative which forces us to suffer through the entire story, watching as each new convention backfires more spectacularly -- but without the relief of allowing us to condemn the characters, since by the very act of acknowledging the mythic nature of the story arc, we acknowledge that we fully expect and condone the characters going through exactly this arc. We’re just as complicit as they are in being misled by our expectations.

Sadistically, the movie constantly teases our characters’ ruinous lack of awareness, giving them ample opportunity to figure out that they’re on the wrong track, but then dragging them right back into it. And it plays pretty fair with them, considering how mercilessly it sets them up to fail. They’re not idiots, and they’re not bad people. They really think they’re being logical and practical about all this, but they’re starting from a false premise, so every subsequent assumption they make is wrong. The movie is fraught with moments where one of them notices something off, and almost figures it out. But the psychologist doesn’t know much about detective work, and the detective doesn’t know much about psychology, so no one can see the big picture. They reassure each other whenever one of them is having doubts, and the whole thing becomes a downward cycle of confirmation bias. And of course, it’s personal, too; when confronted with the idea that maybe, just maybe, regression hypnosis doesn’t reveal hidden memories, but instead a highly suggestible unconscious state, the scientist in Raines suddenly sees the truth. But then the ego kicks in as he realizes that would undermine his whole career. And he forces himself to unsee it.

By the way, that guy over Hermione's shoulder is Lothaire Bluteau, fuckin' JESUS OF MONTREAL himself! Nice to see him still getting some work. Actually this movie is full of interesting character actors in small roles (Bluteau, Dale Dickey, David Dencik, Peter MacNeill, Julian Richings) who make their standard-issue roles a lot better than they deserve to be.

I guess I have to admit that maybe this got to me a little more than it otherwise might have because of the unique way it juxtaposes narratives with objective reality. I’m obviously looking at the world right now with some mix of horror and despair, as I watch my beloved country (America) start down what could be a very, very scary path. I’m looking at these Trump voters, and it just completely boggles my mind what they could possibly be thinking that would make this seem like a good idea. This is pretty extreme stuff we’re playing with here. This isn’t stuff which I think it’s possible to have a simple political disagreement about -- either I’m right about how dangerous this approach is, or I’m completely crazy and everything I think I understand about government and reality is wrong.

And I can’t discount that possibility. We all have an idea about what kind of movie we’re living in, and I think we probably all imagine ourselves as the hero on some level. But it’s easy to imagine someone watching the movie of our lives slapping their foreheads over how frustratingly shortsighted we’re being, how we can’t see the obvious no matter how many times it throws itself at us. Hell, I can look back at my own life and see times where I can hardly believe how caught up I got in a narrative which turned out to be totally bogus. It didn’t just feel right at the time, it felt inevitable. I’ve seen this movie, you think, I know what happens. But of course, the whole reason we need narratives is to try and make sense out of the chaos of reality. They’re a comfort, not a truth. REGRESSION, whether it means to be or not (and, truthfully, I think the case for “not” is probably the stronger one)*** is a sobering reminder of that fact, and its potential to turn well-meaning people into an instrument of great harm. As a straight horror movie, it’s completely played-out, predictable, and dull, with a flourish of intelligence-insulting in its finale. But as a parable about the danger of believing your own story, it’s genuinely horrifying.

*Although in that particular example it’s actually them, because fuck you all, HOLY MOUNTAIN is a delightful movie that deserves and demands be loved by all who gaze upon its glory.

**Man, is that guy great or what? This is a total nothing of a character, but you wouldn’t know that from how hard Hawke works to make him come to life.

***It is, however, obviously designed as a movie which will read very differently once you know the twist. So whether you think we’re supposed to know the first time around, or it’s just designed to be re-watched with that knowledge, the intention is certainly there.  

Also, this is in the movie. I'll let you decide if that was a good or bad choice.

1 comment:

  1. Hah! Awesome. I might check this movie out, it seems delightful seen through this post-modern lens.
    There was this one Darin Morgan X-Files episode which explicitly dealt with this theme and it was outrageous in all the good ways.

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