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Gothika: Special Edition

Warner Home Video

Starring Halle Berry, Robert Downey, Jr., Penelope Cruz,
Charles S. Dutton, John Carrol Lynch, and Bernard Hill

Written by Sebastian Gutierrez
Directed by Mathieu Kassovitz

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Review by Gregory P. Dorr                    

Most Hollywood suspense thrillers are so categorically miserable that small pleasures, when they deign to visit, should be gratefully embraced. When it is at its best, the dark, supernatural, psychological mystery Gothika (2003) is just such a breakthrough, gracefully treading genre clichés with confident style toward a superbly realized revelatory moment that, even for punters able to suss out the big plot twists, chills with a rare sense of horror and gravitas. Sadly, Gothika is, otherwise, everything that is tired about the mainstream thriller crop, and although its fine moments are pure, its failures are as depressingly acute.

Gothika is pulp schlock, as its title suggests, and neither screenwriter Sebastian Gutierrez nor director Mathieu Kassovitz (La Haine) refrain from indulging themselves, promising from the start an energetic treatment of some very familiar motifs and gimmicks. Halle Berry stars as Dr. Miranda Grey, a pensive, driven staff psychiatrist for a conspicuously ominous (and gratuitously badly lit and ineptly wired) Connecticut penitentiary for insane women. Troubled by far-fetched "Satanic" rape stories from a haunted patient (Penelope Cruz), Dr. Grey is momentarily reinvigorated by a creepy pep talk from the prison director (Charles S. Dutton) — also her husband — but within hours a shocking encounter throws her entire life into chaos and her sanity in question, and she is incarcerated in the very facility where she once worked.

It's all been done before: the aggressively grim and creepy asylum with chronically failing electricity and peculiarly long and desolate hallways; the supernatural murder mystery spurred by ghostly sentinels; the self-doubting hero mistaken for a raving loony; the sane are insane; the insane are sane, etc. And it's all been done better (and, in many cases, done starring Bruce Willis), but the cast and crew of Gothika are game and have some fun with their uninspired material, despite some substantial lapses in logic required to keep the narrative on track.

Berry is very good as the sensitive and vulnerable doctor, and it's a smart move to follow-up her Oscar-winning turn in Monster's Ball with a character that continues to showcase her acting chops, but that also rejects any pretense of self-serious artistry in favor of cheap thrill appeal. The rest of the cast turn in solid performances, even if the talent of Robert Downey, Jr. is wasted (not that kind of wasted) on a undemanding role that feels like charity casting, and the strong presence of Charles S. Dutton remains unrealized.

Genre fans will likely be quite content to enjoy Kassovitz' energetic style, even if it is at times showy without noticeable benefit, as it livens up the script, but the real strengths of the film arrive in two key scenes. The first great moment — when Miranda attempts to assist a bizarre naked girl in a vicious rain storm — deftly establishes the film's paranormal theme with a flourish that recalls David Lynch and is enough to sustain the more conventional set pieces with a sense of uncertainty. The second scene of note is quite the opposite — when the first big piece of the puzzle falls into place — and it does so with a plainness that is unusually powerful and harrowing for such bubblegum material. Unfortunately, what follows as the story heads toward climax eschews that controlled effectiveness and devolves into hysterical, overwrought silliness. Thankfully, Gothika is tightly-paced, so its weaknesses are at least efficiently expressed and concluded before they become excruciating.

Sadly, flaccid third-acts are de rigueur for movies like Gothika, so the complete capitulation of quality in the final minutes is not unexpected. More demoralizing, though, is the tepid (and unnecessary) epilogue, which feels like the final scene of a B-grade TV series pilot, capped off with a ludicrous Limp Bizkit cover of The Who's ill-fitting "Behind Blue Eyes" as the credits roll.

*          *          *

Warner Home Video presents Gothika: Special Edition in a terrific anamorphic transfer (1.85:1), doing justice to director of photography Matthew Libatique's atmospheric visuals (which, at their best moments, recall his unforgettable work in Requiem for a Dream and tend to carry weaker scenes). Audio is in Dolby Digital 5.1. As the second DVD release of Gothika, Disc One of this two-disc set remains essentially unchanged, with Kassovitz and Libatique chiming in on a dull commentary track. The music video for the aforementioned Limp Bizkit travesty can be found on the first platter as well.

Navigation on the brand-new Disc Two is less helpful than overly clever, dividing new supplemental features into an "Interview Room" and "Office." The former includes four features: "On the Set of Gothika" (16 min.), "Painting with Fire" (7 min.), an episode of MTV's "Making the Video" (19 min.), and an excerpt from MTV's "Punk'd" featuring star Berry (4 min.). Meanwhile, the second area includes profiles and interview footage with three of the film's characters, as well as a look at each one's drawings. And the snap-case from the first release has been replaced with a preferable dual-DVD slimline keep-case.

— Gregory P. Dorr

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