Back in 2001, through a quick theatre viewing decision, I was introduced to Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Amenabar; with his English language debut film The Other, a very auditory driven haunted house feature starring Nicole Kidman. The film intrigued me immensely and the creep factor on it raised the hair on my head which definitely fueled my interest in foreign films, most notably Spanish language films. Later that year, I would go and see the new Cameron Crowe/Tom Cruise film Vanilla Sky, and in the credits I noticed that the movie was based on Open Your Eyes, Amenabar’s feature film debut. Needless to say, I became a little more enamored with him.
Years later, in 2004, he released his, at this point, crowning achievement, The Sea Inside. The film would earn two Oscar nominations and two Golden Globe nods as well, winning one of each for the Best Foreign category. The film is driven by the brilliant portrayal of Javier Bardem as Ramon Sampedro, a quadriplegic who fought a thirty year battle in favor of euthanasia and his own right to end his suffering. Amenabar’s unique style translated well from the odd mystery of his first film, through the sensory immersion of The Others and into a soulful and touching real life story. Unfortunately, with only one film released between now and then, he hasn’t gotten quite near that level again as his Egyptian historical drama Agora failed to impress me at all, even with a great cast in it.
Seeing the trailers for Regression gave me a glimmer of hope when it was first released. Returning to a darker story, the film features Ethan Hawke in the lead role as Detective Bruce Kenner, investigating a man who has admitted to sexually assaulting his seventeen year old daughter, Angela (Emma Watson), even though he has no recollection of it. Angela submits a written accusation to the authorities, thoroughly outlining everything, causing Kenner to bring in Professor Kenneth Raines (David Thewlis), who employs a memory regression therapy to regain subconscious or lost memories. Immediately, during the first session, the procedure ends up implicating a suspect who also happens to be an officer in the precinct.
Kenner starts to dig deeper into Angela and her family’s case, branching out to start investigating her grandmother, Rose Gray (Dale Dickey), and things start to take a darkly evil look as Satanism may be a large part of the case. Kenner also starts experiencing dreams involving Satanic rituals as Angela starts to open up more and more about her experiences that no one else can seem to recall. This mystery plagues the detective as he struggles to find a believable resolution to the case that’s grounded in reality, alienating himself from the other police in the department and weighing heavily on his own sanity.
Alejandro Amenabar again uses what worked so well with The Others and crafts a film that really gets its suspense and thrills from the sound design. Hearing Kenner listen to his taped interview with Angela as he searches around the reported crime scene, which fuels the imagery we see going through his head. It’s these disturbing thoughts coupled with some simple outside sounds throughout the movie that make the almost completely silent scenes that much more palpable with a foreboding feeling of something around the corner. If only the story lived up to this well fleshed out element within the film.
Written by Amenabar himself, the mysterious and Satanic nature of the film is enough to draw a viewer in, but as the movie moves forward it fails to sustain the interest needed in a story like this, failing to meet the same base level of insanity you would think a tale like this would command with none of the reveals being all that interesting. The nail in coffin of Regression’s plot is the third act that feels like a rush resolution and that seems pretty unclear as to what it’s really trying to say. It’s easily Amenabar’s least cohesive film yet.
The biggest draw to this film, otherwise, is the work of Ethan Hawke, an actor ready and willing to always take a chance. Looking at his work in the last few years shows his selectiveness with roles in Predestination and The Purge. He’s really making this genre of films work for him. His broody detective is a great foil for the audience to get behind, as every other character in the film has issues with what they think about him. He quickly becomes public enemy number one by jailing one of their own, so the rest of his colleagues may cause more problems than actually be helpful. Hawke seems to work very well as the one man team; a driven and reckless problem solver who may or may not have put his faith in the wrong place.
As much as I don’t think Regression works great as a complete story, Alejandro Amenabar and his command of audio atmosphere adds so much to a theatrical experience that it really is a benefit to see it in the darkened cinema. My take away from it is that Amenabar recovered from an underwhelming film like Agora to something that plays more to his strengths. If we could have more dedication from the great filmmaker in this genre, he could seriously scare the pants off audiences with the simple creak of a floorboard. I gave Regression a two and a half out of five.