Uniquely conceived Gothika falls prey to convention
A psychiatrist has a strange, fiery encounter on a dark and stormy night and wakes up three days later to discover herself charged with murder and incarcerated in the institution where she was previously employed.
That has the makings of a provocative premise for a suspense thriller in the psycho-horror mode, even a patently preposterous one. But in Gothika, a starkly designed horror film with an attractive cast, that notion spins through an intriguing mixture of the psychoanalytic and the supernatural before sinking into a lamentably routine set of payoffs.
Halle Berry plays the psychiatrist ably enough, and director Mathieu Kassovitz (La Haine, Crimson Rivers) sets it all up in a semi-stylized night world that seems suspended somewhere between realism and fantasy. And it doesn’t hurt that Penelope Cruz plays one of the inmate patients, or that Robert Downey Jr. plays the psychiatrist’s most sympathetic colleague.
But screenwriter Sergio Gutierrez has loaded his tale up with so many twists and angles that very little of its best potential ever takes hold. Repressed memory and demonic possession hold all the promise this movie can handle, but Gutierrez and the producers insist on the murder mystery on top of that and a serial killer or two for good measure. It’s as if someone here, lacking confidence in the prime material, felt obliged to touch base with both The Sixth Sense and The Silence of the Lambs, overcompensating via Hollywood-voodoo.
Gothika is at its modest best in the humble span during which we are tantalized with the possibility that the doctors may be crazier than the patients. But once Dr. Grey (Berry) decides that the ghosts she sees are trying to point her toward the solutions to more than one murder mystery, the story jettisons its psychological heft and shrinks to routine crime-stopper moves. Cruz and Berry emerge from the wreckage so unscathed that you wonder if the ending of some other film somehow got tacked onto this one.
But without the spells cast by Kassovitz early on, maybe we would have paid more heed to the tell-tale signs of plot embarrassments—the man Dr. Grey is supposed to have murdered is her husband and boss (Charles S. Dutton), and the sheriff investigating the murder is the victim’s best friend. And besides, who could really put any faith in an asylum where Robert Downey Jr., bless his heart, is one of the doctors?