Director: Parker Finn
Screenplay: Parker Finn
Stars: Sosie Bacon (Rose Cotter), Kyle Gallner (Joel), Jessie T. Usher (Trevor), Robin Weigert (Dr. Madeline Northcott), Caitlin Stasey (Laura Weaver), Kal Penn (Dr. Morgan Desai), Rob Morgan (Robert Talley), Gillian Zinser (Holly), Judy Reyes (Victoria Muñoz)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 2022
Country: U.S.

It was Shakespeare’s Hamlet who observed “That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain” (Act I, Scene III), an unnerving concept that lies at the heart of Parker Finn’s Smile. The horror thriller has been marketed heavily with imagery of various characters in the film, seemingly possessed by some malicious force, smiling malevolently into the camera, often with a Kubrickian tilted head and upward gaze (someone in the canny Paramount marketing team came up with the idea of placing people in the background of live television programming grinning in such a manner to gear up interest in the film prior to its release). The horror of these smiles lies in both their exaggeration (they’re just too big) and their dislocation from any kind of context justifying them (that is, there is no reason for the smile), as well as their stillness. These smiles are haunting precisely because they are uncanny, so firmly rooted in a familiar facial expression that nonetheless feels entirely wrong.

The connection between smiles and the horror is long and storied: think of the natural grin of the fleshless skull, the smiles of torture-inflicting devils and demons in religious paintings, the carnival-freak smile of clowns, and, of course, the iconic, toothy leer of Conrad Veidt’s Joker-inspiring Gwynplaine in Paul Leni’s silent melodrama The Man Who Laughs (1928). Finn, who is making his feature debut by remaking an earlier short film (unseen by me), recognizes how visually powerful twisted, unnatural grins can be, and he uses them as the film’s ultimate jump scare, priming the viewer to be on the lookout for one while also taunting them with the idea that it could eventually take hold of the protagonist, an emotionally scarred psychologist named Rose Cotter (Sosie Bacon). Rose first encounters the horrific smile while dealing with a recently admitted patient (Caitlin Stasey) who is paranoid and seemingly delusional in her ranting about some entity following her and wearing other people as masks. Rose soon learns that it is all too real when the patient, her face suddenly contorted in an unwavering, mask-like grin, slits her own throat right in front of her with a shard of broken pottery.

Clearly shaken to her core, Rose attempts to continue about her normal routine, working long hours at the emergency psych ward and spending time with her fiancé, Trevor (Jessie T. Usher). But, she soon finds that she cannot shake the experience; it haunts her dreams, which get tied up with her tormented memories of her drug-addicted mother’s death before her eyes when she was a child. As the plot unfolds, we begin to see that Smile is fundamentally a film about trauma and the way in which traumatic experiences leave permanent, life-altering scars. Rose discovers that her torment is part of a pattern that has affected more than a dozen others, a mystery she attempts to solve with the help of Joel (Kyle Gallner), her exceedingly patient ex-boyfriend who happens to be a police detective and is therefore able to access information that would otherwise be beyond her reach. Smile uses its supernatural curse both literally and as a metaphor for psychological trauma; the monster is particularly monstrous because it literally feeds on residual emotional distress from past events. The fact that Rose is a psychologist makes her predicament all the more precarious because she is all too aware of just how “crazy” she sounds—to her boss (Kal Penn), to her older sister (Gillian Zinser), and to her own therapist (Robin Weigert)—even as she knows that it is all so horribly true.

Writer/director Parker Finn has a solid grasp of the mechanics of the horror thriller, and he has a knack for alternating primal jump scares with sustained sequences of encroaching dread. He doesn’t have much pretension toward art-horror (Ari Aster, David Robert Mitchell, Jennifer Kent, Robert Eggers, et al.), favoring instead an old-school approach that just wants to make you squirm and jump. The discordant soundtrack by the Chilean-born composer Cristobal Tapia de Veer is matched with purposefully disorienting cinematography (more than a few shots either begin upside down or find their way there) that reflects how Rose’s world is being turned outside out by the curse’s riling up her past. Sosie Bacon, whose thin, angular physique seems both exceedingly fragile and wiry-strong, makes Rose an engaging protagonist whose alternate terror, sadness, and anger meld together in ways that feel very real. Unfortunately, the film is hampered to some extent by Finn’s overreliance on misleading dream sequences, the kind that have every indication of being reality before Rose suddenly wakes up in a sweat—it’s just a dream!. A few times it works very well, but by the end of the film it has happened so many times that it becomes hard to take anything at face value, and I found myself sitting back, just waiting to see when the rug would be pulled out. Otherwise, though, Smile is an effective horror film that is both conventionally scary and engaging in its evocation of memory and trauma.

Copyright © 2022 James Kendrick

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Overall Rating: (3)

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