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So Halle Berry has never really been a draw for me. I acknowledge that she is a fine actress, but I've never been able to forgive her for her wussy portrayal of Storm in the first X-Men movie. X2 warmed me up a bit, but I'm still not what you'd call a fan. I went into Gothika neutrally, having avoided previews or spoilers, so I didn't know quite what to expect.

Halle Berry plays Dr. Miranda Grey, a psychiatrist in an asylum for criminally insane women. Professionally she is a rational, logical scientist firmly grounded in reality. She treats her patients with a cold detachment, and wonders why she can't get through to them. Her personal life is bound to the hospital as well. Miranda's husband, played by Charles S. Dutton, is the man in charge, and there is a current of sexual tension between her and a co-worker played by Robert Downey Jr.

At the start of the film Miranda is treating Chloe, a patient who claims nightly trysts with the devil in her cell. Miranda's analytical approach to Chloe's psychosis fails to break through to her patient. When she begs Chloe to trust her, Chloe simply says, "You can't trust someone who thinks you're crazy." Frustrated, Miranda ends the session and laments her perceived shortcomings to her husband. Dutton's Dr. Doug Grey has a paternal, mentor/student relationship with his wife, and she clearly submits to his guidance.

Miranda and Dr. Pete Graham (a strung-out looking Downey) seem to have a more equitable relationship than she does with her husband, and their friendship hints at future infidelity. Entrusted by Doug to make sure his wife gets home safely through the storm outside, Pete dutifully follows her most of the way. After he leaves her, she hits a roadblock that diverts her down a spooky lane and over a Sleepy Hollow-esque covered bridge. On the other side of the bridge, a dripping wet girl appears in the road, and Miranda swerves and crashes into a ditch. Unharmed, she extracts herself from her car and staggers to the road where the moaning and incoherent girl bursts into flames and grips Miranda's face. Miranda blacks out and awakens in a cell in her own asylum, where Pete reveals that she has brutally murdered her husband.

Zany antics ensue…

Well, not really. What follows is one of the most tense and creepy horror/thrillers I've seen in a while. Tightly plotted and paced, each scene adds to the atmosphere of dread and confusion. Miranda's rational mind struggles to wrap itself around the madness confronting her, without losing herself in it. Perhaps most frightening of all, is how the definition of sanity is completely subjective to the person in control, and the more Miranda protests, the crazier she seems. Miranda must eventually let go of reason and lucidity in order to find the truth, and it's not clear what that will cost her.

As I pondered Berry's performance, I was struck by how calculated it seemed. In certain actors one can see the wheels turning as they plot out their performances, and it's always kind of bugged me. Berry, especially in contrast with Cruz' visceral Chloe seemed almost mechanical, and I was ready to dock her a point or two. Then I thought about it further in terms of Chloe, and I realized I wasn't seeing Berry's calculations, I was seeing Miranda's. Miranda is a scientist, and Chloe is a madwoman, and it's Chloe's fluidity that Miranda must adopt to survive within the asylum. There's a great dichotomy between these two, and their scenes together are some of the most fascinating in the film.

So, yeah, I guess I've gained further appreciation for Halle Berry as an actress.

Penelope Cruz is stark and chilling as Chloe, and I enjoyed every minute of her performance. As Miranda's guide through the madhouse, her relatively small role is one of the most memorable. Stripped down and raw, Cruz's Chloe is a woman clinging to madness as a shield from the insanity of the real world, and I wish we'd seen more of her.

Robert Downey Jr. looks to be playing on his bad boy reputation, and I constantly felt his Pete was up to something throughout the movie. He just didn't seem trustworthy. It's always good to see Downey on screen. He's always engaging and he brings a comforting (if shifty) presence to the movie.

There were some problems, however. The music was overwrought; it tried so hard to raise the tension in places that it became comical. The resolution took a little to long, and I found the final scene implausible. The dialog was kinda silly in places too, drawing a few contemptuous snorts from the audience with lines like, "He opened me like a flower of pain." There's not much more I can point out without treading into spoiler territory, so I'll let it go at that.

Oh but the scares…there are a lot of great scares in this flick. We had a vocal crowd, and they gasped and screeched at all of the right points. The movie was genuinely scary, and although it had its share of cheap "boo!" moments, there were some drawn out scenes that were good and frightening. As a horror film it's pretty solid, and it took me a while to figure out the end. I give kudos to a movie that doesn't give away its secrets, and this one kept me guessing almost all the way through.


Marin Carpenter

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