Vinessa Shaw, the love interest from 1990s Halloween classic Hocus Pocus, is all grown up now and starring in her own features, as evidenced by this year’s Netflix release Clinical. Shaw stars as Dr. Jane Mathis, a psychiatrist who specialized in post-trauma therapy until two years ago, when teenage patient Nora (India Eisley) broke into her office around Christmastime and slashed Jane several times with the same piece of glass that she was using to slit her wrists, before attempting to slash her own throat.
The scarred Jane has re-established her practice in the home in which she grew up and works with much more low-risk patients: workaholics, struggling couples, etc. She finds the work less fulfilling, however, and against the recommendation of her own therapist Terry (William Atherton), she accepts a new patient named Alex (Kevin Rahm), the recipient of a face transplant following a car accident that left him with significant scarring, both physically and mentally. Despite the support of her childhood best friend Clara (Sydney Tamiia Poitier) and her policeman boyfriend Miles (Aaron Stanford), Jane finds herself haunted by images of Nora in her waking life and her sleep paralysis dreams, perhaps exacerbated by her sessions with Alex. Her fears are further amplified when she learns that Nora has actually been released from the facility where she was being treated by Doctor Saul (Nestor Serrano), meaning that the nocturnal disturbances and creepy events befalling her may not be just in her mind. Or are they?
Response to this film has been overwhelmingly negative, which is both disappointing and a demonstration of just what a negative and profound impact the past decade of “jump scare” horror has had on western film consciousness and casual criticism. It’s not a good sign that every armchair critic is complaining about how “slow” and “dull” this throwback gem is, or bragging about how early they caught on to the “twist.” Admittedly, being unimpressed by how telegraphed a plot twist may be is something that I’ve been guilty of, but I’d like to think that this is only the case when the upset of expectations is the relevant film’s primary selling point. I’ve also complained about a film’s pacing as well, but that’s a complaint about a problem with a filmmaker’s methods and editing, and I’ve never said that a film was bad because it chose to evoke a mood or create atmosphere by telling a story with a deliberately slow pace.
Make no mistake: this is a movie that invests time into the nooks and crannies of every scene, but it does so with the (successful, in my opinion) intent of creating a sense of verisimilitude. It’s no more taxing on one’s patience than a classic thrillers like The Stepford Wives. Jane’s return to her practice is deliberate and thoughtful, demonstrating that recovery is a process both for her and for her patients, and the time that she spends trying to break through Alex’s shell is relevant to the narrative and a strong demonstration of the importance of good character work. The concept of an epiphanic moment, in which a character participates in a single therapy session and has a sudden clarifying realization that “fixes” their problems, is overplayed in the media; on the other hand, sometimes those moments in which a patient realizes that some event or repeated rationalization is a cornerstone of their mental disorder or bad thought patterns do happen, albeit after many, many sessions.
In film, the essence of a twist that actually works requires that the ironic reveal or sudden turn forces the viewer to reconsider all that which appeared before, which is in itself a kind of revelation, not dissimilar to what one might experience when working on their own mental health and personal growth. The way that Clinical‘s twist plays out forces the viewer to re-examine the content and context all of Jane and Alex’s sessions in a new light. It’s subtle, but the film plays out as a kind of macrocosm of the psychological process: a lot of conversation and discussion that normally drips little bits of insight and sometimes demonstrates no obvious progress at all, until there’s a breakthrough.
Shaw is also excellent in this role. Looking at her IMDb page, she’s stayed active but kept a relatively low profile. This film hinges largely on her performance, and she knocks it out of the park, radiating a professional warmth in her role as counselor but tempering that competency and self-assurance in her private moments of terror and self-doubt, not to mention the doubt and self-recrimination. It’s a wonderful dichotomy of character that Shaw fulls off effortlessly, as Jane preaches the importance of talking therapy to her patients while also abusing her relationship with her own trusting therapist to illicitly get prescriptions for her own maladies. Shaw is utterly fascinating to watch, and I can only hope that we’ll be getting to see more of her in future projects. The normally vivacious and energetic Rahm is also great in his role as Alex, playing against type as a physically mangled man completely withdrawn from the world, pathetic but never so much that he loses your sympathy, even as you start to suspect that he may be hiding something about the tragic accident that left him with a scarred face.
If I did have a complaint, it would be that the film’ conclusion barrels along at a pace, accelerating in a way that dredges up and ties different plot threads together almost too quickly as they crash into one another, but that’s a matter of personal taste. I would also object to the way that Doctor Saul treats his patients, were it not for the fact that, all too often, real world psychologists also behave this way toward those under their care. Overall, however, this is a great thriller that I’d recommend to anyone who can sit still for a little while without checking their phone, and especially to all those who like to temper their Christmas cheer with a scare or two.
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond