I remembered really liking Tarsem Singh’s debut feature, The Cell, when I first saw it as a blockbuster VHS rental in my impressionable teen years in the early aughts. That fond memory has faded over the last couple decades as the details of the film itself became overwhelmed by critical complaints that it was a thematically thin bore and, frankly, by an increasing number of goodwill-tanking stinkers within Tarsem’s own catalog. I have since left The Cell behind as if it were a childish plaything, convinced that The Fall was the sole fluke when Tarsem had stumbled into creating a feature film worthy of his consistently stunning imagery. It was a pleasant surprise on revisit, then, that The Cell holds up to the exquisite nightmare I remembered it being in my initial viewing. Contrary to its reputation, Tarsem’s debut absolutely fucking rules, meaning the “visionary” director has two anomaly masterpieces under his name, and one of them stars Jennifer Lopez.
If The Cell is lacking anything that’s achieved more eloquently in The Fall, it’s certainly a matter of narrative & thematic substance. While the latter film is a morally complex exploration of the nature of storytelling, deceit, and imagination, Tarsem’s debut leaves all its ideas & plot machinations in plain view on the surface. Its dumb-as-rocks premise is an attempt to take the “Entering the mind of a killer” plot from Silence of the Lambs as literally as possible. That’s it; that’s the entire movie. JLo is our de facto Clarice Starling in this ungodly mutation of the Silence of the Lambs template, with Vincent d’Onofrio putting in a deeply creepy serial killer performance in the Hannibal Lector role (and Vince Vaughn taking over some of her on-the-ground detective work). Like in the psychedelic anime Paprika & the dream-hopping blockbuster Inception that followed nearly a decade later, JLo literally enters the subconscious mind of her maniacal serial killer patient via futuristic sci-fi- tech that essentially allows her to lucidly dream inside someone else’s head. Once lodged inside the nightmare realms of his twisted mind, she must race against the clock to discover clues that could save his latest potential victim from death (and hopefully help him heal along the way).
I could maybe see this Dream Police setup being disregarded as too convoluted or silly to be worthwhile in certain audiences’ eyes if the nightmare fantasy realms it facilitates weren’t so intoxicatingly lush. Bolstered by breath-taking creations from legendary fashion designer (and frequent Tarsem collaborator) Eiko Ishioka, The Cell often plays like a haute couture fashion show by way of Jodorowsky. Nature footage, fetish gear, and babydoll-parts art instillations serve as mood-setting set decorations for Ishioka’s designs, which look like they were inspired by the Royal Court of Hell. On its own, the police procedural wraparound story that fames those high fashion nightmares might have been the boring, thin genre exercise The Cell has been misremembered as. I don’t understand how anyone can indulge on the exhilarating drug of these high-fashion kink hallucinations and walk away displeased with the picture, however, as it sinks all its efforts into the exact sensual pleasures & dreamlike headspace that only cinema can achieve. It’s disguised as a single-idea genre film, but its ambitions reach for the furthest limits of its medium (and the medium of fashion while it’s at it, just as lagniappe).
If you boil down the most common complaints about The Cell to their most inane essence, the movie has been largely dismissed for following a “style over substance” ethos. This would be an incredibly boring take on any movie in my opinion, but it’s especially egregious considering just how exquisite the style is here (thanks to Ishioka, largely). My best guess is that Tarsem’s prior work as a music video & television commercial director had helped contextualize this piece as an exercise in pure style in critics’ minds, as he even calls attention to that professional background by recreating his sets from his “Losing My Religion” video in the killer’s troubled mind. Helpfully, though, he also calls attention to the aesthetic differences of this film and the grimy torture porn visuals that would soon become an industry standard. The next potential victim is locked in a time-controlled torture device (the titular cell) that will drown her if JLo doesn’t heal the serial killer in time, making the film’s real word setting feel just as much like a precursor to Saw as it is an echo of Silence of the Lambs. That grimy torture device helps establish clear, tangible stakes for JLo’s literal trips into the killer’s mind, but it also serves as a wonderfully illustrative contrast to the lush nightmare-couture of the dream sequences. In comparing that titular torture device to the serial killer’s nightmare realms, you can clearly see how Tarsem’s distinct sense of style transform a potentially mundane genre picture into an impeccable work of fine art – substance be dammed.
The only shame is that Tarsem’s struggled to repeat that miracle in the decades since, with one major exception in The Fall. Still, two five-star achievements in a single career would be an impressive feat for anyone. It’s a miracle that he got away with even that much.