Review: REGRESSION, Beyond Disappointing

Editor, Canada; Montréal, Canada (@bonnequin)
Review: REGRESSION, Beyond Disappointing
Back in the 1990s, Alejandro Amenábar was part of the incredible new wave of Spanish fantastic cinema. 

His first feature, Thesis, was a Hitchcock-style thriller about snuff films that was creepy and sexy; his second, Open Your Eyes, a subtle sci-fi thriller that was one of the most original contemporary puzzle films; his third, The Others, was one of the most interesting and effective gothic horrors of our time, managing to be completely terrifying with no gore or violence. He went in a different direction for his next two films; one of them, The Sea Inside, winning the Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards.

It seems fitting that his most recent film after six years would be a return to his horror/thriller roots. Alas, it seems as though Amenábar has been living under a rock for most of that time. Regression displays none of his originality in either form or content. What he gives us is a film filled with clichés, a story that is as predictable as it is passé, and manages to make even very good actors look pretty bad.

Set in Minnesota in 1990, Detective Bruce Kenner (Ethan Hawke) is called in to investigate a claim of sexual abuse of the teenage Angela (Emma Watson). Her father confesses to the crime, but cannot remember anything, except to implicate another police officer, George (Aaron Ashmore). But it seems it wasn't just sexual abuse; Angela, then her father and grandmother, all describe Satanic rituals taking place. As Kenner delves deeper into the story, it seems like he might become the cult's next victim.

The film begins with inter-titles explaining the wave of fear of Satanic cults that was prominent in the US in the 1980s; while this information might have seemed useful, it completely detracts from the mystery. We know this is going to be a movie not only about a detective thinking he's found an actual Satanic cult, but about the debunking of that mystery. Doing away with this introduction might have given the film a bit more of an edge, but knowing where the story is going renders the horror scenes innocuous. The only question for the audience is, will it be a case of child abuse, or of a girl who cried wolf, either out of fear or manipulation? Sadly, the conclusion paints a rather grim picture of women, when I would have expected more from this director.

regression_poster-300.jpgAmenábar seems to be trying to evoke the police crime thrillers of the 1980s, while emulating more recent occult/possession films, but in doing so gets lost in imitation rather than offering something different. The beats are predictable: the detective hears the stories, draws out confessions, becomes attached to the victim, starts to believe in the occult himself until a small clue sets the record straight. 

Most of the shots feel tight and claustrophobic, which I'm guessing was deliberate, but actually ends up alienating the viewer. In fact, the entire film is alienating, with no attachment to the situations or characters. And it just isn't scary; I was slightly startled at one point, but the insistence on overdramatic music, unmatched by the scenes to which they are attached, becomes a source of frustration rather than escalating fear.

Hawke does his best, but can't save the stereotype of the dedicated yet moody detective, recently divorced and living off cup-a-soups. The supporting actors are stuck with dull dialogue, and two great Canadian actors, Lothaire Bluteau (as the ever-believing priest) and Julian Richings (as a fellow police officer) are wasted. But the most hard-done-by is Emma Watson; she is given a thankless role with terrible dialogue, seemingly little direction except to cry on occasion, and her 'deception' so unbelievable that it seems Kenner must be a terrible detective.

I expect this kind of work from a first-time filmmaker out of his or her depth, not someone with Amenábar's experience and talent. He was once considered the contemporary master of the psychological thriller; to see him fall back into such lazy filmmaking is beyond disappointing. 

Review originally published in connection with the film's theatrical release in Spain and Canada n October 2015. Regression will open in select theaters in the U.S. on Friday, February 5.

See also an interview conducted by our own Loïc Valceschini with Amenábar.
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Alejandro AmenábarEmma WatsonEthan Hawke

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