Make sure the liquor cabinet at home is well stocked, because you might just want a stiff drink after seeing Smile. The feature debut of writer-director Parker Finn, expanded from his SXSW award-nominated short Laura Hasn’t Slept, is designed to work your last nerves… in a good way, if such a thing is possible. It may take time and repeated viewings to be sure just how good or bad Smile is as a movie, but as a scare delivery device, it is damned effective. (Trigger warning: anyone who cannot bear seeing harm done to pets should probably avoid it.)
At least until the climax escalates its stakes, Finn’s debut seems like it was pretty cost-effective, too, since the movie’s primary threat is a malevolent presence which mostly disguises itself as one of Stanley Kubrick’s most famous shots as a director. You know the one: head tilted down, eyes looking up at the camera, and mouth grinning as wide as the Joker. Jack Torrance, Alex DeLarge, and Private Pyle now have company.
Smile follows in the J-horror subgenre of “lethal chain letter” films like The Ring swear The Grudge, where an unstoppable curse gets passed along from one doomed person to the next. In this case, the victim-hopping, smiling presence drives a person into violent suicide, always in front of a witness who within a week becomes his next victim. The most effective scares involve variations on Hideo Nakata’s best one Dark Waterwhere a character suddenly realizes there’s a scary thing right beside or behind them, and slowly, grudgingly turns to look at it, only to find it’s even worse than imagined.
Psychiatrist Rose Cotter (Sosie Bacon), a doctor so noble her fiancé mentions she’d work for free if she had to, becomes its latest target when an emergency patient (Caitlin Stasey, so good as the crazy aunt in Lucky McKee’s Kindred Spirits) slices open her own neck in front of her—without flinching, no less. Rose is already dealing with enough residual trauma from her pushy, perfect-parent-in-training sister (Gillian Zinser), but the woman’s grim-faced death in her office prompts the early stages of a breakdown. Consequently, nobody believes her when she starts seeing the smile herself, least of all her conservative supervisor Dr. Desai (a subdued Cal Penn).
Creepy smiles have been a staple of scary cinema at least since Conrad Veidt inspired the creation of the Joker in The Man Who Laughs. As a recent viral stunt by the Smile team at a baseball game shown, the evil-infused expression can be particularly effective even at a distance, as occasionally happens in the film. The score, by Cristobal Tapia de Veer (The White Lotus) does the rest of the work, building crescendos of droning noises and crying sounds into tempests of insanity that cut off at just the right moment. It helps set the mood that Rose, even when pursued by an evil presence, keeps her house lights set at extra dim and her phone ringer at extra loud.
There’s some comic relief, but it’s very deadpan, such as when a secondary character gets unduly excited by his vegan meal. It may ease the tension to realize that the demon/spirit/whatever is apparently a fan of exposition, and doesn’t appear whenever Rose is actively learning information that furthers the plot. The moment she gets any downtime, though, watch the hell out.
Bacon is onscreen in almost every scene, and she makes Rose’s journey from trauma counselor to traumatized entirely convincing. Although she comes from acting royalty—the daughter of Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgewick—there’s no actorly vanity here. Emotionally she leaves it all on the table. Kyle Gallner, currently great on Hulu as an aggressive criminal Dinner In America, goes wonderfully in the other direction here, as Rose’s understanding ex who conveniently happens to be a cop. His character stands in contrast to Jessie T. Usher as Rose’s fiancé, who’s nice but largely ineffective, but to the film’s credit, it casually centers an interracial couple without commentary or awkwardness.
Although much of the special makeup involves typical blood and guts, along with the kind of minor digital tweaks to victims’ smiles that Soundgarden employed back in the music video for “Black Hole Sun,” the effects team at Amalgamated Dynamics puts together some truly disturbing imagery for the film’s final third. Smile is unable to resist the temptation of a potential sequel, but Finn delivers an effective resolution nonetheless. Tying the evil force to lingering trauma—and having to smile through the worst of it—is the movie’s most potent weapon, and what ultimately differentiates it from predecessors like Final Destination or Oculus. It’s obvious that Finn draws heavily from his own favorites, but Smile suggests that their skill and effectiveness have successfully been passed along to him.
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