Regression (2016, Canada/Spain, d. Alejandro Amenábar, 106 Minutes)
by Jesse Stringer
In the early 90’s, there was a sudden outbreak in paranoia over a speculated increase in Satanic cult rituals across the United States. Many people around the country claimed to have been tortured or raped by these cults. Some even claimed to be a part of them. And this is where the loose basis of the supposed “true story” that Alejandro Amenábar’s new film, Regression, stems from.
Regression follows a detective in small town Minnesota, who is working on a case involving a father sexually abusing his teenage daughter. As he digs further into the case, he learns there may be more sinister forces at play, in that the young girl may have been subjected to Satanic cult rituals. Now, let’s start here by saying that Regression is clearly a well intentioned film. It’s easy to tell the filmmaker cared about this film and certainly had a vision for it; which is a shame because, unfortunately, Regression just isn’t very good. Amenábar has made some notable films in the past; particularly, The Others, which was a very creepy and effective horror film; reflective of the ghostly classic from 1961, The Innocents. So, one may think that his newest outing in the horror/thriller genre couldn’t be all that bad, right? Well, after watching it, it’s strange to even think that both films were made by the same person. This film does have its moments, and it can be seen that there is some talent working through it. But, there, sadly, is more bad than good here.
The problems begin with Amenábar’s script, which is a mess. The story can never decide exactly what it’s trying to be. Is it a horror movie? Is it a detective drama? Is it a psychological thriller? It tries to be all of those things, but does a terrible job of blending all of the elements from those genres together. Even the plot elements are wildly inconsistent. While watching the movie, points will be made during the story and then it seems that Amenábar decided that the point he had made wasn’t as good as this new thing he wants to do, so instead of going back and re-working the story to have his new points make sense, he just throws them in without giving any thought to what has already been written. On top of all that, Regression’s characters are all bland and boring. Even our two main characters have virtually no depth given to them, and the little that they do provide nothing to make an audience care about them. And nearly every line of dialog they deliver is awful. That of course could be blamed on the fact that Amenábar may not be fluent in English, but his previous film The Others had a great script, so it’s a surprise these movies were both written by him. This story had a lot of potential to at least make for an intriguing story given Regression’s subject matter, but any bit of subtlety that this story could’ve had is thrown completely out the window with this script.
Even though a bad script could never further a film to success, a good cast and director could at least make it into something admirable. The cast however, does very little to make this script work. The film stars Ethan Hawke, Emma Watson and David Thewlis among others. All of these actors have done good work in the past, even great work. But their work in Regression may be some of their worst. Ethan Hawke is doing his best Bruce Willis in an early M. Night Shyamalan movie impression, and not a good one. He plays the main character, Detective Bruce Kenner (only one letter away from Jenner), and he really does nothing to make this character interesting or sympathetic in any way. David Thewlis is an incredible actor. He’s been proving that for years in films like Naked, The Big Lebowski, and even last years Anomalisa. He is barely trying here, but even when he is barely trying, he manages to be the standout performance in the film. Which is unfortunate for his Harry Potter co-star, Emma Watson, who should’ve been the standout here. Emma Watson has yet to prove that she is a truly great actress, and her role in this movie does her no favors. On paper, her role as a sex abuse victim could be a good avenue for Watson to further her career away from the role of Hermione Granger. She is definitely trying to give a good performance, but the film’s script holds her back from delivering anything better than mediocrity. Hope can still be had for her future in film, but Regression is likely a movie she would avoid discussing.
Thankfully, it is clear that Amenábar has some skill as a director, but he’s not working to his full potential with Regression. Amenábar’s direction is really what saves this film from being a total disaster. He directs this film in the vein of older suspense films, which really separates Regression from all the other trash that is released around this time, the movies that try to pass off as “horror films”. While Regression may not be effective at all, it’s nice to see that Amenábar is at least trying here. He uses some nice shots throughout the film and manages to build an eerie mood with some nice muted color palettes and a good score from Roque Baños. And the film isn’t boring at all. Amenábar manages to keep an audience curious as to where the film will go from it’s first frame to it’s last. Unfortunately, and not giving anything away, the film’s ending kind of ruins any good the movie had going for it. It’s the kind of ending that kind of halts everything that had happened previously and makes it feel as though the film lacked any reason to exist at all. But even after all of that, it’s hard to really rag on the movie. As stated before, it’s well intentioned and it doesn’t feel like a studio film that is just trying to make a quick buck. It’s a film that is likely important to Amenábar, and Regression unfortunately fails to be anything close to spectacular.
Regression is a film filled with nothing but missed opportunity. With the type of subject matter it deals with, it could’ve worked as a disturbing psychological thriller with a few good scares thrown in. The movie we are left with however, is unfortunately an empty, emotionless journey through the dark world of Satanic cults. It’s not scary or really even thrilling, but for some reason, it’s easy to be curious to see how the story ends, and, well, just save the time and trust that it’s not good.