Alejandro Amenábar directed Nicole Kidman to one of her best performances in THE OTHERS, a horror film that was both haunting and clever. The full review of that fine film is here, and I recommend watching that instead of REGRESSION, a film that is equally atmospheric, but diffused in its mounting terror, rather than sharply focused. That it also contains a very fine performance by Ethan Hawke fills me with malaise at the waste.
Set in 1990, a few weeks before Halloween yet, it finds Hawke as Bruce Kenner, a detective on the police force of a quiet little Minnesota town. He’s a hot-shot, and not terribly impressed with his co-workers, but when a local girl accuses her father of molesting her, Bruce is the man for the job. The father, John (David Dencik), has turned himself in while tearfully asking for God’s help on the drive in. He claims no memory of the crime, but knows that Angela (Emma Watson), who has taken refuge at the local church with Rev. Murray (sad-eyed Lothaire Bluteau), never lies, so it must be true. Bruce brings in a perky psychiatrist (David Thewlis) from the local college in order to help recover the John’s memory. Using a metronome with a cruciform pendulum, John begins to piece together scenes he can’t understand of people in hoods and ritual abuse all being filmed. It isn’t long before Satanic Ritual Abuse is being formally blamed for what happened, and for Bruce to start investigating the rest of the family, the estranged son (Devon Bostick ) who left town, and Grandma Rose (Dale Dickey), whose early life was one of fast-living and scandal.
There is a fine sense of mood here. Shadows loom, creep, and often cover the characters on their dramatic journey. Alas, there is an almost militant refusal to create an aura of suspense, even when Bruce imagines the dire doings of a Black Mass that Angela has described to him, or relives them in the vivid nightmares the investigation provokes. The golden opportunities of contrasting the very ordinariness of this Midwestern burg with the evil wallowing just beneath the surface is missed entirely. Further, red herrings are tossed lackadaisically, performing their task with a perfunctory, get-it-out-of-the-way attitude that allows us to dismiss them without the pleasure of being artfully misdirected.
Hawke, however, gives it his all. He’s a barely contained powderkeg, sniping at his co-workers, becoming far too attached to Angela’s torment, and possibly Angela herself. The interplay of compassion and righteous indignation is well established as two manifestations of deeper issues. Watson, on the other hand, is brittle and artificial, in even her character’s most vulnerable moments, making her a scooch less sympathetic than she needs to be, while Dickey, in contrast, makes the befuddled, belligerent mess that is Grandma Rose an endless source of surprise, playing our preconceived notions with a finely enigmatic quality as her character sits amid the squalor of her house, surrounded in clutter, cats, and liquor bottles.
REGRESSION toddles along, hither and yon, before finally getting to the point, and then making that point as dull as a pair of safety scissors, and not quite as effective. It’s not that Amenábar doesn’t tie up all the loose ends, it’s just that by the time he does, we no longer care.