Smile (2022)

OCTOBER 18, 2022

GENRE: SUPERNATURAL
SOURCE: THEATRICAL (REGULAR SCREENING)

As a licensed Horror Movie A Dayologist, I make it a point to see every major horror movie in theaters (and a lot of the minor ones too!), if for no other reason than to ensure I have a review up of something people are actually watching, as opposed to obscure DTV stuff from 30 years ago. But the nearly two hour runtime of Smile (along with trailers and travel) meant I needed a three hour block of free time that also coincided with the theater’s schedule, and over the past few weeks such a thing hasn’t existed. Between Screamfest, Beyond Fest, various fall activities with my family, etc. I haven’t had a three MINUTE block of free time, it seems, so I kept watching the movie make money and be discussed without being able to find time to see it for myself. Luckily, the film’s success meant it would still be there when I finally got a chance, now in its fourth week in theaters.

But I had to laugh that it turned out that the day I finally had time was October 18th, which also happened to be the 20 year birthday of The Ring, the film most critics (and even fans) have compared it to (hell even their runtimes are identical: 1:55). In a way it felt like a legitimate way to honor Gore Verbinski’s modern (well, I guess not so modern, now) classic, seeing that it continues to influence twenty years later. At times the similarities were a bit eye rolling – did it need to be a week for the curse to kill you here, too? – but for the most part, beyong the thing being passed from one person to another, the two felt different enough that I barely even thought about ol’ Samara once the movie got going.

(Spoilers ahead!)

A big part of that is due to the fact that, thankfully, the characters in the movie aren’t trying to solve a mystery of where the curse began. Our hero Rose (Sosie Bacon) is a trauma therapist who is also a workaholic; in an early scene we see her leave her office for the day (after learning she’s been there since the day before), and, after a beat or two, her phone rings, for which she rushes back and continues to work. Later we learn that she witnessed her mother’s suicide as a child, so it’s pretty clear to understand why she works so much – helping patients with their trauma is her way of coping with her own. But when a new patient (Kindred Spirits' Caitlin Stasey) also commits suicide in front of her after rambling about being cursed by people who smile, she starts seeing things as well and is forced to not only deal with this, but also finally come to terms with the trauma her mother left her with all those years ago.

That personal connection, perhaps, keeps her from digging into the origins of this particular “virus.” Her ex (Kyle Gallner) is a cop who she enlists to help her track the thing back a ways (Stasey’s character saw a professor kill himself, that professor in turn saw a woman kill herself at a conference, and so on), but it only goes far enough for them to agree it’s not just a coincidence and that something otherworldly must be happening. And that’s great! Any sort of “it all began with this person” type plotting would a. just make it feel more like The Ring and b. distract away from Rose’s plight, as given the ticking clock of her own seemingly unavoidable death she has to decide how to rid herself of it, or perhaps isolate herself and commit suicide without anyone seeing it, leaving the curse without a host to continue to spread.

Of course, that’s some rather grim subject matter, and it doesn’t always mesh perfectly with the demands of a modern studio horror movie (i.e. jump scares) but it mostly works, thanks to Bacon’s endearing performance (real Neve Campbell vibes) and some well-crafted tension scenes from director Parker Finn. Finn makes his feature debut here with an expansion of his short (which also featured Stasey, though is sadly unavailable online at the moment – hopefully it’ll be on the Blu-ray), and fares better than average when it comes to these sort of stretched out redoes. Sure, it can be a little repetitive at times (the movie even makes a joke about how Rose breaks TWO wine glasses in its first act, both times after being startled by the ghostly images that are now following her), but it never bored me and had me pretty much hooked in until the final ten minutes (more on that soon). It’s also kind of funny at times; Rose isn’t afraid to speak her mind and gets in some pretty great lines at her disbelieving fiancé and obnoxious sister, who she resents for leaving when they were younger instead of helping her deal with their unwell mother. It’s also got an all timer bit of morbid humor involving her missing cat; it’s one of those things where you’ll likely realize what’s happening (i.e. where the cat is) a few beats before it actually does, forcing you to squirm as Finn and his editors delay the inevitable just to build up the anxiety about the moment that the poor kitty is “found.”

I also enjoyed how it felt like a low-key take on MeToo stuff, in that you really feel Rose’s frustration that no one believes her, and that’s all she seemingly wants. Nearly every woman who has come forward about their abuse has had their motives questioned, with “she’s making it up for attention” kind of idiocy coming from detractors, planting seeds of doubt into those who might have believed her otherwise. And you see that sort of thing here; when Rose meets Stasey’s character, she of course chalks it up to some kind of mental breakdown, only to go through it herself starting the next day (when it’s, of course, too late to apologize to Stasey for doubting her). Rose’s fiancé, her sister, her boss, etc all keep coming up with excuses as to why she’s acting the way she is, without anyone (except the ex, eventually) even humoring her, let alone believing her. That extreme annoyance is something Bacon’s performance really makes you feel down to your bones; if you’ve ever been dismissive of someone’s claims of this or that, you’re likely to feel mighty guilty about it after seeing her breakdown (at a party scene, if you’re looking out for it).

But man, the ending. I won’t spoil the particulars, but it involves some CGI nonsense and a weak closer that is needlessly pessimistic when you consider the film’s themes of unresolved trauma. It seems to be saying there’s no way of getting past it, and maybe that’s true, but man. BLEAK! And not that bleak endings are bad, but when you couple that with the silly apparition being “battled” and the fact that Rose’s fiancé was just dropped out of the third act entirely, it feels like an ending that was either the result of test screening changes or perhaps a filmmaker having a terrific concept but no ending in mind, and this was the best they could come up with because they had to have SOMETHING. And the more I got away from it (this post is up six days after I saw the movie, you might notice), the angrier I got - it really undid a lot of goodwill, and I truly hope there was a different finale originally that got ruined by nervous execs or whatever, because building up to that climax (and then a novelty pop song on the credits to pour salt in the wound) really felt kind of insulting.

It's not bad enough to derail the whole thing, mind you – just one of those “this coulda been a classic if they just knocked it out of the park at the end” kind of movies that ends up just being pretty good (ironically, it was knocked out of first place by Halloween Ends which has the opposite problem: it’s a little messy/awkwardly-paced throughout but has a great final 10-15 minutes). Without seeing the short it’s hard to know what they originally covered, though given its short runtime (11 minutes) and two person cast I am going to assume it’s basically just Stasey’s scene here in a different fashion, and therefore how it ended wouldn’t really correlate here. Maybe the blu-ray will offer an alternate ending or something that will be a bit more to my liking. Either way, I’m glad the movie’s a hit and, more importantly, I’m glad my gamble of using up some of my precious/sparse free time this month paid off. Well; MOSTLY paid off - the popcorn sucked, but that’s not the movie’s fault, far as I know.

What say you?

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