Hey, remember Alejandro Amenabar? For certain viewers, the Spanish director seemed well on his way to becoming one of the great saviors of genre cinema in the late 1990s and early 2000s — the kind of guy who could take otherwise tired horror and science-fiction concepts and give them new life. His breakthrough 1997 hit Open Your Eyes (remade — inferiorly — by Cameron Crowe as Vanilla Sky), offered a mind-fuck psychological sci-fi thriller that was actually moving and not cheap and manipulative. His Nicole Kidman–starring classic The Others was the rare big-twist horror hit that actually improved upon second viewing. Later, the stylized quadriplegic drama The Sea Inside won an Oscar and firmly established Javier Bardem as one of the finest actors of his generation. His last film was 2009’s Agora, an expensive historical drama that dared to suggest the ancient world’s shift towards Christianity wasn’t necessarily the greatest thing to ever happen; it starred Rachel Weisz as a brilliant pagan scientist in Alexandria who ran afoul of religious zealots.
I mention all this not because it’s amazing that such a valued director has taken so long only to reemerge with what appears to be a let’s-dump-it-in-February horror flick, but also because somewhere amid those previous works might lie the key to what he’s trying to do in Regression. The film, set in 1990, opens with a title telling us of the reports and fears that ran rampant in the late 1980s about Satanic cults around the country. It then follows dogged Minnesota police detective Bruce Kenner (Ethan Hawke) and Dr. Kenneth Raines (David Thewlis), a British psychoanalyst specializing in regression therapy and hypnosis, as they investigate the possible abuse and rape of a young woman (Emma Watson), allegedly at the hands of her father (an appropriately haunted David Dencik). But the story doesn’t quite check out, and suspicion spreads to a fellow cop (Aaron Ashmore), and to the girl’s creepy cat-lady grandmother (Dale Dickey), with gathering evidence that there might be a Satanic cult at work in this devout small town, sacrificing babies and kidnapping people and whatnot. Kenner is a gruff skeptic at first, but the more he hears, the more he gets pulled into this alleged world of evil and cruelty.
All that seems like a good opportunity for moody portent and terrifying set-pieces, but the story is at once too basic and too cluttered. It’s all built around Kenner interviewing a series of people, with occasional dream sequences and nightmarish visions thrown in (with the requisite, albeit ineffective, jump scares). As the increasingly obsessive Kenner gets lost amid all the accusations and admissions and revelations, we never quite get the sense that we’re meant to take any of it all that seriously.
That’s not to say that the film doesn’t take itself seriously; Amenabar maintains a grim atmosphere throughout, and one of Regression’s few pleasures is its visual elegance, with its dimly-lit interiors alive with demonic possibility. But as the fog of suspicion, driven by dream visions and constantly changing stories, moves and gathers from person to person, we never quite grasp what we’re supposed to accept as fact. That’s not a bad thing in and of itself, and Amenabar is clearly interested in the power of suggestion to change one’s memories and beliefs. But it’s also hard to get involved in a story when you don’t actually know what the story is.
It doesn’t help that Hawke, who is usually solid in these genre films, is never convincing in his gruff single-mindedness. He’s supposed to be a no-nonsense cop, yet seems dopey in his gullibility. Watson, meanwhile, has little to do besides look wounded and vulnerable. She’s not bad at first, but the story gives her increasingly little to do and her performance becomes tedious. Thewlis is his usual interesting self, but the film does little with his character, whose religious skepticism and faith in science could have made for a compelling counterpoint to Hawke’s from-the-gut detective.
There’s an idea in Regression, and it ties into Amenabar’s previous films, many of which were about how our beliefs and assumptions create prisons of meaning, preventing us from seeing outside our perceived reality. And his suspicion of religion and dogma from Agora clearly remains. Unfortunately, by trying to work those ideas into an uninspired horror-mystery set-up, complete with attempted cheap thrills, he undoes their integrity and resonance. Perhaps a story like this needed to be a drama. Or maybe, with its constant, almost comical shifting of blame, a dark satire. Instead, it’s wound up as the worst of all possible alternatives: a disposable genre movie that cannot scare, convince, or enlighten.