Rated R because it really wanted to be R, not PG-13. I know. PG-13 movies make more money. But PG-13 horror movies often seem to be relegated into the second-class tier of horror. So they added a bunch of f-bombs to make it a hard-R. The rest of it is probably as disturbing as The Ring. I do admit that there's a fair amount of blood and on-screen death. I really have to stress that the movie is about suicide, which is treated as a casual topic here.
DIRECTOR: Parker Finn
You know what? Meh-leaning-on-dislike. If you are here for the big takeaway from the movie, I'm going to be the contrarian who didn't like the movie that everyone told me would be amazing. I'm going to try to rush this blog entry into publication because I didn't get my comfortable morning spot and I have too much going on to really give it the attention it deserves. I encourage you to keep reading because I have reasons for disliking this movie. But I'm sure that I'm going to make more mistakes than normal, so if you just want the quick version? Meh-leaning-on-bad.
Everyone is talking about this one. "Have you seen Smile?" (Okay, I hate using hyperbole, but colloquially it scans.) I didn't really want to watch Smile. The trailer didn't do a lot for me. Sure, the head falling down in the trailer got me pretty good. But this is one of those movies that really plays on specific imagery that is a scare-or-not option. I do applaud the viral marketing campaign that happened with MLB. That gave it points in my brain. But then people told me that I had to see this movie. Like with my MPAA section, I was told it was like The Ring. I mean, that advice was accurate and I do like the format of the film. It's like The Ring in the fundamentals, which I realize is become a new subgenre of supernatural horror. The protagonist has done something that seems innocuous. This protagonist then has a suspense-inducing amount of time before they fall to their death. They use this time to investigate the evil that they have stumbled upon while being tormented by whatever creature is punishing them. I remember loving The Ring. An even better version of this is It Follows, which slightly skews the trope.
But there's a real problem with the movie here. Dr. Rose Cotter makes an inappropriate victim. I almost said "awful", as if the actress did a bad job. Nope, Sosie Bacon. You did fine. I don't think that Dr. Cotter should be the focus of a haunting. There are real problems that come out of this. Okay, let's pretend that this movie couldn't be tied to allegory. I would be disappointed, but it makes the following criticism better. Dr. Cotter views the suicide of Laura, thus dooming her to commit suicide within the course of a week. Dr. Cotter didn't do anything wrong. With horror movies, there has to be some degree of culpability. There has to be a warning. The movie stresses that Dr. Cotter had very little time with Laura and never really made a choice that led to Laura's death. Her therapist says so. Okay, so why are we torturing this poor woman? Rose is the pinnacle of empathy. She pushes herself too hard for the good of humanity. Her major character flaw is that she cares too much. Are we punishing that? If horror movies often act as morality plays, are we teaching people to care only about themselves? If I really had to dive deep, which I tend to do on these things, is it about self-care? I don't see a direct line between self-care and punishing others because Rose is encouraged to just bury her feelings the entire movie.
But the even worse thing is that I do see allegory in Smile. As a horror movie, it's a bad idea to torture Rose, but as an allegory, there's a deeply upsetting message. Dr. Rose Cotter is not just a doctor; she is a doctor who deals with emergency mental health. It's a traumatizing job, but she does it so that no person has to deal with trauma by themselves like she did. The constant repetition of mental health makes for a potentially great storyline. I tend to be more critical of films when I see untapped potential and that's what's going on in Smile. Because Rose is a therapist, it is her job to stay objective when people say they are seeing things that don't exist. When Rose is forced to watch Laura's suicide, Rose is now the subject of trauma. Laura begs Rose to believe her, but Rose is not allowed to be believe her. After all, indulging the demons gives them power and Rose is there to de-escalate whatever is going on with Laura. (Again, why is she punished for this?) But the movie, as an allegory, gives Rose the opportunity to view mental illness through the eyes of their patients. It could be this interesting story about how we should have empathy for the mentally ill (and to a certain extent, it does).
But what is also true is that it gives the film the worst solution imaginable to the horror. Rose, in her investigation, discovers that, like It Follows, that the demon moves through spreading it to other people. Rose spirals, knowing that she will A) commit suicide and B) force this demon to someone else given the opportunity. So instead of seeking proper mental treatment, everything in this movie is about encouraging her to deal with her problems herself. I do understand that the movie should make it feel like Rose would want to handle her problems by herself. That all tracks with the allegory. The problem is that the solution doesn't come from other people. The movie leaves us with the understanding that Rose should just deal with her problems herself, leading her to killing herself in isolation. What kind of message is that? The one thing about suicidal ideation is that it needs to be shared before things get out of hand. Suicidal thoughts and tendencies aren't a contagious disease. That's such dangerous storytelling and I really dislike the movie because of that.
And the thing is...she fails? What? When someone offers to help her at the end, she spreads it to that guy because the movie wanted to end on a potential for this to continue. If anything, the film leaves Rose in a position of being one of the more forgettable hosts for this demon because she did nothing to stop it or slow it down. Horror movies are meant to deal with our taboos. I mean, there's something really sadistic about wanting to watch people go through absolute torture that tickles parts of our brains. I don't deny that I want to be scared at times. I may be moving out of my horror movie phase, despite the fact that I've written about more horror movies this week that I might have written for the entire month of October. But I always liked that great horror movies planted subconscious messages in our brains. The good triumph and the naughty are punished for their own lack of repentance. Sure, it didn't always have to be one-for-one. But Rose is someone who had a crappy life. Rose blames herself for her mother's death, which is something that makes her less-than-perfect. But it was something that she was trying to fix both in herself and in others. What the heck, movie? Why is that such a bad thing?
I want to rant about this forever, but it is causing me to shy away from the most superficial element that I need to talk about: "But is it scary?" It's fine. If you hate jump scares like my wife hates jump scares, then yeah, it's real scary. I tend to like them. I will say that, while the smile doesn't really scare me that much, it is effective. It's the same combination of innocence juxtaposed with the sinister that lots of horror movies like, like It, or Leprechaun. I really liked the over-the-top finale version of mother. I know it is imagery we've seen before. It doesn't change how effective it is. But there is one moment that may have lowered the movie a whole star for me. The best part about the demon is how quiet it mostly was. At best, it said your name in a whisper or a scream. But when the demon is the psychologist? Man, this scene took me out of the movie. It starts talking in a demon voice and I just thought it didn't effectively communicate terror in the way that the movie wanted to.
All of this leaves me with a movie that was only kind of scary, mostly a bummer, and offers some dangerous messages. It's not good. I don't know. I don't get what people are losing their minds over. Maybe if I was a different age and in a packed theater, that might be something different. But for me? This is irresponsible filmmaking.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.