When I first saw this movie, about half a year after it was released on DVD, I was in the middle of a pretty exciting time in my life in terms of film digestion. I had just recently absorbed "The Holy Mountain", "The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover", "Le Nain Rouge", and maybe a dozen other films that are known for not only being very unique but also very unusual. I was obtaining more and more obscure films to watch and had come to expect a lot from anything I put in my player.
My first impression after I was done watching The Cell was that it was cheap and cliche, that it had borrowed from many sources but did not prove to be much of a source of entertainment on its own. I felt like the ending was very unfulfilling and that the story was too predictable. It struck me as existing strictly in the horror genre and relying too heavily on flashy special effects to shock and wow the audience into submission so that they would not pay any attention to the hollow story and the terrible acting.
At the time, I did not have any sort of feelings one way or the other toward Vincent D'Onofrio as an actor. I had not yet seen D'Onofrio in "Law & Order" and so had not yet developed a disdain for what I would come to refer to as his "pinnochio-like acting".
Over time I came to begrudge having to ever see Vincent D'Onofrio in anything. Every time I saw him acting all I saw was 2x4's and tree stumps. For me, D'Onofrio came to epitomize "wooden". I likened him to a cactus and a wooden puppet in various reviews.
Now we fast-forward fifteen or so years, to early 2016. An entertainment fan-girl who made her way to a celebrity status of her own mentioned her love of this movie and D'Onofrio on Twitter, and I balked. How can someone with such great taste enjoy this movie, and more importantly how can she admire D'Onofrio so much? But Comic Book Girl 19 insisted to me that if I were to re-watch the film with an eye for D'Onofrio's performance, not only would I come away with a complete re-evaluation of this movie I would also come away doing a complete 180-degree turn on my stance on D'Onofrio.
So, I promised her that I would watch the movie and that if I did, indeed, change my mind about either the film or D'Onofrio then I would come back here and write a better review.
Well, I did watch it and honestly I was quite shocked. Actually ,Vincent D'Onofrio's performance is key to this film's entertainment value. Not only that, but evaluating his performance here gives insight into his performance in later TV and pictures.
The Cell is rich with a huge assortment of both practical and digital effects, blended very nearly seamlessly. As it turns out -- as I learned from one of the several production commentary tracks on the DVD -- every bit of information about every shot was recorded in a database. Time of day, light quality, height, zoom, pan, tilt, motion, filters, and much more were all recorded assiduously into a database that could be referred back to if a shot needed something more added to it either through the camera or through rendering. And this attention to detail, along with the director's personality and approach to film making, allowed the talent of numerous individuals to shine rather thoroughly.
So while 15 years ago it was very easy to watch The Cell with an eye jaded by the constant and growing deluge of digitally rendered effects films, and to dismiss it as just another CG-heavy attempt at selling something that isn't all that exciting on its own, watching it now I see just how different it is from many other CG films. Not just in terms of vision but in terms of execution. The digital effects here are mostly meant to accomplish the impossible, wherever the practical effects fall short of the laws of physics. But the practical effects are just absolutely remarkable. Watching The Cell as "another CG movie" does a huge, huge disservice to the practical effects work done therein and shows a profound lack of appreciation for practical effects, for makeup, for costuming, and most importantly of all a complete lack of any interest whatsoever in interpretive dance.
I'm not sure if many people have given much mention of D'Onofrio's dancing in The Cell. I haven't read many reviews of the film. But it is sort of one of the best qualities of his performance. Sure, his real-world character is unhinged but he's also kind of deadened and boring. And sure, his fantasy-world character is covered in amazing making and wearing amazing costumes, but he also moves with litheness and strength reminiscent of ballet interpretation.
When I saw that, and when I saw the vulnerability D'Onofrio puts into his villain sociopath, I realized that D'Onofrio is far from wooden. But I didn't know what I was seeing that made me think that. I wanted to get back here and write this review but I had to figure out what had misled me for so long about D'Onofrio. I had a suspicion, though, and talking with another critic confirmed for me that my suspicion was correct. It's not D'Onofrio, it's the writing.
People have come to seek out D'Onofrio for characters that are best when done stiff, unreadable and anti-social. And it's not entirely the writers who are to blame. People don't always write for a specific actor. Instead, I have to blame D'Onofrio's agent. Just because people remember D'Onofrio most as an autistic, suicidal army private or a grumpy detective with obvious social issues, doesn't mean that those two roles show his best qualities.
I'm looking up, now at the "Critics Consensus" here at Rotten Tomatoes. "Disturbing, stunning eye candy... a weak and shallow plotline that offers nothing new."
That's what I felt, too, fifteen years ago. I agreed with that assessment 100%. But it's easy to overlook the things that make this film great. In my experience, it doesn't matter what film you're watching -- if you are not enjoying it for whatever reason, you will tear it down in criticism. You don't like the kitchen so you tear out the entire first floor. You never even notice that sure the cabinetry in the kitchen kind of sucked but you totally missed that the countertop was solid marble and the floor was tile. But it doesn't matter if those details would completely change your assessment of the kitchen -- you missed those details, and now the it's time for the first floor to go. By burning the entire thing down, preferably.
Comic Book Girl 19's challenge to me to re-watch this film and to pay special attention to D'Onofrio has definitely made me open my eyes and to second-guess my own respect for films. I kind of already enjoy looking through b-grade movies and picking out what was done right, what made it good enough to be b-grade, instead of picking out what was done wrong that kept it from being considered "better". I already consider myself somebody who gives things second chances. But I also have my tendencies, my grudges or whatever, and definitely enough jadedness to go around. I'm certain, now, that I reserve some biases that potentially cloud my judgment and result in a lack of thorough appreciation.
The story in "The Cell" is by no means entirely new or original in each of its individual elements. But you have to admit, it is the first time those elements are put together in this specific way to create this specific path. You can analyze literature in a similar fashion, by starting with folk tales, analyzing their constituent elements and carrying through a compounding of elements into modern literature. But this also does little in the way of maintaining the objective for the sake of the audience. It actually offers a million tiny things to be jaded about, to take for granted, and to fail to appreciate. Even the hollow plot comes across as a good attempt at re-using a lot of established fiction. And that even kind of makes for a good effort to get the audience to suspend disbelief: if they had come up with ideas that were completely far-out, things that nobody had done before, it would be just that much harder to accept as a potential reality. There wouldn't be a division between a real-life and a fantasy-world in the movie because the audience would just see fantasy-world and crazy-ass-fantasy-world. The film borrows so much that is already beloved in the world of fiction that its premise of the real world is just believable enough. So you see, it would be really hard to pick up on that little detail if you were jaded about the over-use of all those myriad components and just dismissed them all out of hand.
I guess I should go back and re-write my reviews that call D'Onofrio's acting wooden when it's actually just that he's not getting parts that really let him shine.
Any ways, you should watch this movie. And my advice is to do what the director obviously and transparently intended for you to do: to pay attention to D'Onofrio's character. Don't just go "ho-hum, it's a really elaborate and flashy bad guy, wow, anybody can do that". Because not everybody can pull off the flashy villain role as well as D'Onofrio does in The Cell. And his performance definitely pulls the entire movie together and makes all of its details worth watching.
Definitely a 5/5 movie.