REGRESSION Review

Ethan Hawke seems like the type of actor who does as much work as he can no matter the genre, or the paycheck simply because he loves the idea that he gets to make movies for a living. What's it matter, really? He can justify it all by saying one never knows what will catch on and he'd be right. After all, he made a low budget horror flick in The Purge three years ago that will see its third installment be released this year. Of course, it was also around this time that Hawke began to seem to give into the temptations of making more pure genre flicks outside of what is largely an independent filmography. With Sinister, Getaway, and what feels like a handful of direct to DVD releases Hawke has become the actor we wouldn't be surprised to see turn up in anything. His presence no longer signals whether what we're watching might be a horrible film or a near masterpiece as he's arguably starred in films on either end of that spectrum. With Regression the actor wanders back to the territory of the horror genre with what are nothing but honorable intentions, but unfortunately that willingness to commit to almost anything lets him down here. Written and directed by Alejandro Amenábar, who shared those same duties on both 2001's The Others and 2004's The Sea Inside that garnered him a barrage of rave reviews and what was undoubtedly a large amount of good will and momentum, Regression is inspired by a rise in the suspicion of Satanic cult-related activities in the early nineties and how such acts began making their way into the mainstream as well as what were apparently many a police investigations. Of course, through this guise the narrative feels all the more familiar given the number of horror films we've seen that get their "in" through a tortured official investigating these claims that are always scoffed at initially. While Amenábar certainly has an interesting approach to this type of story it might have aided his film even more had he come at it from a different perspective. As it is, there are both some beautifully haunting and cringingly cheap images on display with a few cool period details, but ultimately we've seen this all before and in much better, more effective fashions.

Specifically, Regression deals with a detective, Hawke's Bruce Kenner, and a psychoanalyst (David Thewlis) who begin to uncover evidence of a satanic cult while investigating the rape of a young woman (Emma Watson). Set in Hoyer, Minnesota in 1990, we are introduced first to John Gray (David Dencik) who turns himself into the police after being accused of having sexually abused his daughter despite the fact he doesn't remember anything about such an event. With the help of Thewlis' Professor Kenneth Raines both Kenner and Gray attempt to get to the bottom of what is really happening by assisting Gray in reliving those moments eventually leading to the accusation of a policeman, George Nesbitt (Aaron Ashmore), for having participated in the crime. Given the circumstances of the case and the fact Watson's Angela Gray is the victim and is adamant about the involvement of a satanic cult and their rituals as motivators for the crimes committed against her both Kenner and the law enforcement organization at large have to take into consideration the possibility that they might be dealing with something other-worldly. Given this spectacular aspect, the local media really digs into the case preying on the panic and suspicion across the community in order to spike ratings all of which puts more pressure on Kenner as lead investigator whose men aren't even behind him given he's arrested one of their own (Nesbitt) and thrown him in jail. Naturally, this becomes something of a daunting weight on Kenner's shoulder, a case he can't detach himself from, and thus we see the slow decline of this once sane being who we believed couldn't be deceived by hokey religions and ancient rituals. You know the drill.

Angela Gray (Emma Watson) is comforted by detective Bruce Kenner (Ethan Hawke) in Regression.
That such things (satanic cults that is) actually became of some relevance throughout the eighties allows for Amenábar to claim up front that his film is inspired by true events, but this effectively means very little in this day and age when three out of the first four weeks of the year have featured films based on true events. The fact this is a horror film only discredits it further. That said, it's clear the movie itself never buys into the nonsense that its victim purports to be the truth. Still, it wants to mess with its audience just as much as the case at the center of the movie begins messing with its protagonist. And so, Amenábar uses his keen sense of tone and visual splendor to attempt to hold the audience in wonder over what to believe and what not to. We get serious minded conversations about people's mental states and the psychology of those who allow themselves to be vulnerable enough to believe that a greater power has more control over their life than themselves. There is talk between Kenner and Raines about Angela's father, John, and how he was a man who spent years trying to stop drinking and did so by giving into faith which in turn can be something of an explosive combination. This type of exploration of character where this man, who's clearly not trying to protect himself might have gone too far and done unspeakable things and who can't live with the awful things he's done has repressed such memories is where the film excels. Further, the discussion of Raines area of specialty in regressive hypnosis and the ability to unlock such recollections sets up an obviously engaging idea. It's inherently strange stuff, but also fascinating which makes the ultimate slog of a movie that Regression turns out to be all the more disappointing. And while such existential and religious talk is present throughout the entirety of the film (there is a nice segment on how the devil wants us to forget he exists thus making it easier to fall into his trap when you don't expect his existence) this is not enough to make the bland characters operating in these circumstances compelling no matter how charismatic the actors portraying them are. Hawke going full tough guy detective is slightly laughable while Watson doesn't have near enough screen time to convey the layered, very disturbed mind of Angela.

Maybe the most interesting aspect of this entire movie, which feels like a half-hearted attempt through and through, is the statement Amenábar is making with his title and it's relation to the actions of his story. Without digging too much it would seem that Amenábar chose the title for the reasons that one of his main characters, Professor Raines, practices regression therapy meaning he aids patients in accessing long lost childhood memories, thoughts and feelings through a psychotherapeutic process. Since the 1990 setting of this film, many regression therapies have been discredited for generating false memories, but more important is that this key element of Amenábar's film can be looked to as the reason for him naming it as such when in reality it would seem the writer/director is making a bigger statement on society and our need for structure, order, and the promise of purpose. For me, the title of Regression seems to hint that Amenábar believes buying into such things as the battle between good and evil, God and the devil are simply a regression of the mind; that we as a race of living organisms are returning to a less developed state when scientific innovation couldn't explain so many of the happenings in our universe and daily lives and so we used folklore and two thousand year old tomes to base our existence around. Human beings naturally need purpose and what better way to create such purpose than the promise of an even greater, eternal life if you live accordingly in this one? It makes sense, but as we progress and become more independent minded the question has always been will there still be room for God and faith? I don't think Amenábar is necessarily denouncing the existence of any God or Gods, but I think he is concerned about our ability to use the intelligence we've acquired in progressive ways. I don't even think he is arguing that we don't need a rule book to follow, or spiritual guide to comfort us in times of stress, but that instead he's looking for balance and in attempting to show how wrong things can go without as much he has made a film about the antithesis of evangelists and the evil that can come when such beliefs are held at such a strict level. Amenábar is onto something, but needs a more potent way to relay it. I hope he finds it soon.