Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 46 minutes
MPAA Rating: R for Disturbing Violent and Sexual Content, and for Language
Directed by: Alejandro Amenabar
Written by: Alejandro Amenabar
Starring: Ethan Hawke, Emma Watson, David Thewlis, Lothaire Bluteau, Dale Dickey, David Dencik & Devon Bostick
Alejandro Amenabar made a splash in the international cinema scene with OPEN YOUR EYES and then terrified American filmgoers with 2001’s chilling THE OTHERS. Amenabar’s latest film definitely has its moments (creepy visuals and two solid performances) but falls apart due to the mixed bag of a script. This movie cannot decide whether it wants to be a horror film, a police procedural thriller, or a dark drama with a message. In trying to be all three of these things, REGRESSION never finds its identity and gets bogged down in glacial pacing and melodrama.
The year is 1990. The place is a small Minnesota town. Detective Bruce Kenner (Ethan Hawke) is assigned a particularly disturbing case when seventeen-year-old Angela Gray (Emma Watson) enters the police station. Angela’s father (David Dencik) is accused of sexual abuse, but can offer no believable alibi as he’s been experiencing periods of memory loss. Things get even creepier when college professor Kenneth Raines (David Thewlis) is called in to employ recovered memory therapy on Angela and her family. This teenage girl’s abuse may be linked to something far more sinister as memories of satanic rituals, sacrifices, and torture come to light. Bruce begins to fear that his small community may have a very big, dangerous secret.
REGRESSION relies on a feeling of constant paranoia. Many scenes can be read in numerous ways as Bruce begins to lose his grip on reality, Angela’s case stirs up small town suspicions, and there might be dark forces at work. The story takes place during the tail-end of the 80’s Satanic Panic era in the USA, despite being shot in Canada by Spanish filmmakers. Throughout 106 minutes, we see lots of media coverage about possible satanic ritual abuse, a best-selling survivor’s memoir becomes a recurring plot device, and we watch multiple police officers become sleep-deprived and scared out of their wits. REGRESSION captures an uneasy atmosphere, aided by gloomy visuals, but forgets to be legitimately frightening or clever in the process.
The film’s “horror” arrives in the form of fake-outs and nightmare sequences. Besides dreams, a significantly large portion of screen time is dedicated to various regressive flashbacks. These moments are filled to the brim with would-be creepy visuals that come off as over-the-top and cheesy. Old people with pasty white makeup, black eyeliner and lipstick represent the dangerous Satanists, while a red-eyed cat is hilariously used as a cheap jump scare. We’re supposed to be scared of these cult members, but I found myself constantly chuckling at their silly appearances.
The acting is a mixed bag as Ethan Hawke pretty much reprises his character from SINISTER. The only differences between REGRESSION’s Bruce and SINISTER’s Ellison is that Kenner actually leaves the house and has a badge. They are pretty much the same exact protagonist with different outfits. In spite of well-trodden similarities, Hawke still manages to carry a number of scenes on his shoulders. David Thewlis delivers the film’s only other decent performance as Professor Kenneth Raines, who is a difficult character to read. This therapist can be seen as helping the case, but also hindering it. This complex character is one of REGRESSION’s biggest highlights. As Angela, Emma Watson seems bored, makes sad/scared faces, and occasionally lets her English accent creep into multiple scenes. It seems like she was just here for a quick paycheck and I can’t fault her for it, because the screenplay is a mess.
REGRESSION’s plodding pace and dull payoff are guaranteed to bore anyone hoping for scares and thrills. The half-assed plot revelations are ripped directly from other films (a certain mixed bag 2005 slasher came immediately to mind). This movie has an identity crisis and attempts to do a lot of interesting things, but repeatedly falls flat. The most disappointing thing about REGRESSION is that there are cool ideas here, but they never come together in a compelling or rewarding way. As a result, this film feels like a chore to sit through. If you’re looking for scares or even a dark drama, I’d recommend looking elsewhere.