Lock up the tots and blindfold Granny before you enter The Cell and join research therapist Catherine Deane — that’s Jennifer Lopez, taking a break from club-hopping with Puffy — on the trail of a monster with kinks that even Hannibal the Cannibal never investigated. Carl Stargher, played with no sick twist untried by Vincent D’Onofrio, is not your ordinary cutup. Carl kidnaps women, locks them in a glass cell and videotapes their torment when he turns on the showers and drowns them. For a droll finishing touch, Carl lowers himself over the waterlogged bodies of his victims by means of rings attached to the flesh of his back — ouch! — and then masturbates in throbbing appreciation of his own handiwork. Pretty, it isn’t. I point this out for the sake of those delicate flowers who might wander into The Cell by accident expecting a dry treatise on microbiology.
Those expecting sadistic trash are in for a surprise as well. Mark Protosevich might have fashioned a screenplay that steals without shame from The Silence of the Lambs and Seven, but The Cell has a look of its own, and it’s a look that will pop your peepers. It stands to reason that the one-named Tarsem — born in India, educated at Harvard and famous for his visionary commercials (Nike, Levi’s, Miller Lite) and music videos (R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion”) — is not about to make his feature-directing debut with a movie that looks even remotely ordinary.
Tarsem uses the dramatically shallow plot to create a dream world densely packed with images of beauty and terror that cling to the memory even if you don’t want them to. It was astute of him to cast Lopez, an underrated actress with the kind of warmth and magnetism (Selena, Out of Sight) that an audience will follow anywhere. Catherine has been using a synaptic-transfer machine devised by Dr. Henry West (Dylan Baker) to enter the mind of a comatose boy. These striking images, filmed in Africa, open the film on a note of surreal serenity that is quickly shattered when FBI agent Peter Novak (Vince Vaughn) enlists Catherine to climb into the depraved subconscious of Carl, now captured and conveniently comatose. Maybe Catherine can figure out where Carl is hiding his latest trapped butterfly before the cell fills with water and another beauty dies at the hand of the beast.
The setup stretches credulity further than the skin on Carl’s back. And when agent Novak jumps into the killer’s brain to save Catherine — it seems that mind-probers risk insanity and death if they stay cooped up inside a freak’s head too long — you may be tempted to hiss and boo at the screen. But it’s the internal logic of the plot that concerns Tarsem and his f/x team, and their visual arsenal rarely fails to impress.
For starters, Carl has five different alter egos, from abused child to demonic satyr, and Catherine must confront each of them to unlock the key to his psychosis. D’Onofrio, best remembered as the flabby soldier who blew his brains out in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket and the giant bug in Men in Black, plumbs the depths of Carl’s depravity with uncanny skill. In a film that plays to the eye, D’Onofrio and Lopez still manage to keep the human details in perspective.
No easy feat, considering the sights that keep vying for our attention. The throne room in which Carl the evil king holds sway looks like a mad collaboration between Hieronymus Bosch and Fellini by way of Nine Inch Nails. Computer-generated imagery is all the rage these days, from Gladiator to The Perfect Storm, but Tarsem insisted on building actual sets on soundstages to bring a fierce reality to the fantastic.
For audiences unattuned to Tarsem’s head trip, The Cell may be less a cause for wonder than it is for nightmares and migraines. Watching Carl — who often sees himself as a devil with horns created out of human hair — trap women in cages, dress them in S&M regalia and bind them in chokers that cause bleeding from the jugular is hardly entertainment, even if Tarsem takes pains to show how Carl sees his victims as mermaids in a magical kingdom of his own creation. Is Tarsem condemning the sick visions that drive Carl to murder, or is he getting off on them? There’s little doubt that his cinematic provocation will stir up heated debate. Even with fava beans and a nice Chianti, The Cell is not a movie that goes down easy.