Director: Alejandro Amenábar
Starring: Emma Watson, Ethan Hawke, David Thewlis
Running Time: 106 minutes
This review contains spoilers
Alejandro Amenábar is probably best known for The Others, an intelligent and atmospheric horror film about a mother who begins to fear that the house in which she and her children are staying is haunted. The film was nominated for numerous awards, including the BAFTA for Best Original Screenplay, and both the film’s atmosphere and Nicole Kidman’s performance won great critical acclaim. The Others is one of my favourite films, so I was really pleased to hear that Amenábar was making a return to the horror genre. Unfortunately, having actually watched the film, it turns out that I needn’t have been excited at all.
Regression is about Detective Bruce Kenner (Ethan Hawke), who is investigating the case of John Gray (David Dencik), a father accused of the sexual abuse and torture of his daughter, Angela (Emma Watson). Gray readily admits to the crime, but matters are complicated by the fact that he has no memory of having committed it. Kenner teams up with Professor Kenneth Raines (David Thewlis), a psychologist who believes that Gray has repressed the memory of his crimes, and proposes that he hypnotise him in order to help Gray remember what he did. However, as time goes on, it becomes clear that what happened to Angela may in fact be part of something larger, namely the work of a satanic cult.
One of my biggest issues with the film is that it can’t seem to decide what genre it wants to be; Regression starts out as a simple detective thriller, but, as the possibility of cult activity is brought up more and more, the film veers into what is decidedly horror movie territory, complete with hooded figures, ritual sacrifice, and, bizarrely, a demonic cat. Then, finally, it relaxes into more of a drama, concerned with ideas about false memory and the power of suggestion. While there isn’t anything inherently wrong with a film being a mixture of genres, I do think that when you’re dealing with a concept as intrinsically supernatural as devil worship you need to know which side of the fence you’re on. The way the film staggers back and forth between genres doesn’t create tension, it just makes for an uneven atmosphere, as well as the suspicion that the filmmakers don’t really know what they’re doing.
The film takes the time to let us know that Kenner, like all good movie detectives, is estranged from his wife, but doesn’t bother to tell us why, or even to mention the detective’s family again. In fact, we don’t really find out anything about Kenner’s private life, despite the fact that he’s the main character. Ethan Hawke is a great actor, and manages to make the detective believable and easy to warm to in spite of the scraps he’s been given to work with, but his lack of backstory is still frustrating. Likewise, Emma Watson, despite being too old to play 17 year old Angela, offers an emotional and convincing performance, but is let down by a mediocre script.
The main thing, however, that makes the film so shockingly bad is its ending. There isn’t really any way for me to say what I hated so much about it without giving away what happens, so anyone still interested in seeing the film should stop reading now. Basically, having all but confirmed the idea that a satanic cult is behind Angela’s rape and torture, as well as given the impression that members of the cult are now after Kenner, the film’s increasingly overwrought atmosphere fizzles out when it is revealed that, in fact, there is no cult. Not only that, but there was no rape. Angela’s wounds were self-inflicted, and she accused her father of abusing her out of sheer spite.
The atmosphere having been raised to a level of near-hysteria, in a few moments all the horrific things that have happened over the course of the film are brushed off as mass delusion. Because, apparently, simple suggestion is powerful enough to make people hallucinate banging on the door, cats with bright red eyes, and a pool of blood oozing under your front door. While confused and lacking all subtlety, a good ending could have elevated the film from bad to acceptable, but the total lack of payoff is not only the final nail in the coffin of a terrible film, but frankly insulting to the audience. I think the only way it could have been worse were if the last scene had been Kenner waking up to discover that the events of the film had all been a dream. Which, in fact, is not all that far from what did happen.
Furthermore, not only is the ending completely dishonest, it’s also dangerous. The reality is that false rape accusations are extremely rare, and that women who have been raped are often not taken seriously, or in some way blamed for what happened to them. To end the film this way, with Angela having accused her father of rape out of simple malice and been believed by everyone, taps into an incredibly dangerous way of thinking that is not only a cheap way to end a film, but also deeply misogynistic.
In short, Regression is a frustratingly misjudged film that is a waste of a talented cast and a potentially interesting premise. It feels like the work of an amateur director trying to find his style, not someone as talented and experienced as Amenábar.