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In hypnotic terms, a regression is when a subject has memories buried so deep they cannot actively recall them, usually something troubling they have blocked or wish not to relive. When a crime is involved, those memories could mean the difference between condemning a person or setting them free. That’s part of the premise behind much of Alejandro Amenabar’s latest psychological horror/thriller, and while it has much that is very wrong, it manages to entertain with some good performances and great direction.
A disheveled and haggard-looking man named John Gray (David Dencik) walks into a small town Minnesota police station, confessing to abusing his daughter Angela (Emma Watson) but has no memory of doing so. In on the confession is Detective Bruce Kenner (Ethan Hawke), an aloof, determined cop who, while listening, realizes he’s not the best person to be handling the interview. He’s saying some peculiar things and so Kenner calls in Kenneth Raines (David Thewlis), an expert in hypnotherapy who brings his trusty metronome and garners some disturbing recollections about a cult of Satan that is slowly absorbing the townspeople.
Kenner is skeptical of it all, a strictly pragmatic investigator who is careful about what he sees and hears, not willing to accept that the Devil himself is preying on the community. But evidence mounts as he and Raines take their questions to those involved. This leads to Angela, who has fled to a convent and written journals about her satanic ritual abuse in shattering details. She is frightened and confused, telling Kenner that ‘they’ are going to kill her, and after she shows him the inverted cross branded on her abdomen, him, too. She weeps and whimpers and gets inside Kenner’s head. The two are also attracted to each other, and the prospect worries Keener, a man almost twice her age.
But the nightmares seem real. Cloaked figures in shadow seem to lure him into dark places, but he resists, despite his weakening resolve. As the town becomes swept up in a frenzy of religious and Satanic fervor, Kenner is pulled deeper into the intrigue. And so are we, mostly. Amenabar walks a thin line between horror and thriller, genuinely building moments that feel authentically frightening, and others that are comically cliched (the image of a devil face cued precisely with a lightning crack is laugh out loud ridiculous). For the benefit of the story, Kenner is meant to descend into a bit of madness, but the manner in which he does, and the speed for which it occurs is far too fast to be believable. It truly only takes a few bad dreams and two odd phone calls to have him clutching at rosary beads and wooden crosses. That’s not to say that some of the dream sequences aren’t chilling, with one in particular that works well involving a sexual encounter that is not at all like it looks. But here lies part of the problem.
The hardest part about horror/thriller films is that they must make a choice. Horror implies things beyond reality, supernatural entities, monsters and other such phenomenon that populate the localized world in which the story is set. Witches, ghosts, zombies, aliens, spirits, possessed serial killers and demons are all things we accept in the fantasy. Thrillers tend to keep things grounded, dealing with the psychological effects and trauma with a rigid grip on reality. Some films break the mold and make the blending work, such as The Babadook, but even then, what we think is one thing is actually another, making it the superior film that it is. With Regression, it is forced to choose, and as it claims from the start that it is based on a real event, its dabbling with horror are at most, superficially effective.
For fans of Harry Potter‘s Emma Watson, this will be double-edged. She is barely in the film, but holds a significant part. As the abused child, she carries the burden of convincing us of the atrocities, and without a doubt, Watson is impressive, if not a bit transparent as it progresses. Her tiny frame and demure features make her appear vulnerable, and like Kenner, we respond to it almost instinctually. But cracks in the story make the denouement unsurprising, and leave Watson’s character adrift in the obvious, with no sense of ambiguity that would have made it lasting. Hawke too is well cast, bringing his signature consternated expressions and emoting to full effect. Where things fail are in some of the dialogue, and a police chief that is jarringly overdone.
There are some good things happening here, though, especially with direction. Pay attention to how Amenabar frames Kenner and Raines. Their positions tell us everything about the rise and fall of science and faith among them throughout. And there is a wonderful use of conversation on an airplane with Kenner and Rains on opposite sides of the aisle, with the rows in front nearly empty, called back later while they sit in exactly the same positions in church pews with a similarly empty congregation. So too is a vividly realized moment when a character is lured out to her barn in the middle of the night by a cat’s howl, the consequence of which are well shot and full of glorious jump scare delight. The rain-soaked, near always nighttime setting become dreary after a while and the twist ending is something you’ll figure out a full half hour before the characters do, and when it is revealed, you might wonder why it was the focus of the story anyway. The real story of Regression is never explored they way it should be, with past-life regression therapy a very real and much-debated issue in the 1990s, and one that could potentially make for a very powerful story. Here though, it is brandished like a Ouija board in a cheap horror flick and fails to really compel.
Director(s): Alejandro Amenábar
Actor(s): Emma Watson, Ethan Hawke, David Thewlis
Genre: Drama, Thriller