Smile’s greatest asset is its cruelty. Throughout the film, an unseen entity has tightened its grip on Dr. Rose Cotter (Sosie Bacon), turning her into a fractured, fragile mess. She insists that — among other things — she didn’t kill her cat and wrap it up as a birthday present for her nephew. She bought him a very nice model train, actually! It was the thing that pulled the traumatizing switcheroo. No one in Rose’s family believes her, which is harrowing not only for her but also her sister, Holly (Gillian Zinser). Their mother also had problems, you see — problems that led to Mom’s death by suicide when Rose was just 10 years old.
For Rose, it’s difficult to say which is worse. It’s bad enough that this evil spirit is mimicking the symptoms of a psychotic break in order to, in essence, season its food (the creature feeds on trauma, so making the situation as upsetting as possible for all involved presumably makes its meal tastier). But her worst fear isn’t being possessed by a demon; it’s that her mother’s mental illness was both inheritable and inescapable and that that early trauma will determine her destiny forever.
Rose is a classic trauma-plot protagonist — we really don’t know much about her except that she has suffered and that that suffering has shaped everything about her. She likely became a psychologist to expel some of her guilt and to help others in ways she was not able to help her mother. The trauma of her mother’s illness and death also affects the major relationships in her life, both with Holly and with her fiancé, Trevor (Jessie T. Usher), who was looking at Rose with skepticism long before her strange behavior began.
She’s the type of character Parul Sehgal wrote about earlier this year in her New Yorker essay “The Case Against the Trauma Plot,” one whose buried pain “trumps all other identities, evacuates personality, remakes it in its own image.” What’s interesting about Smile is that its monster does the exact same thing, literally feeding on trauma. Smile is both an extension and a repudiation of the trauma plot, incorporating its traits and tropes while denying viewers the familiar catharsis of conquering the monster.
One of the more famous “It’s really about …” horror films of the past decade, The Babadook, ends with the protagonist and her young son taming the metaphorical manifestation of their trauma (in this case, grief), chaining it up safely in their basement so they can go on with their lives. It’s a tidy visual metaphor for the kind of processing one does in therapy, unearthing and confronting one’s demons in order to lessen their power over you. Smile has its heroine undergo this same process but with different results.
Throughout the movie, vague references are made to the family home, which has been abandoned for years but which Rose refuses to sell. How metaphorical! Rose isn’t ready to face her trauma just yet, so she’s also afraid to return to, or engage with, the site where she suffered. Makes sense, right? But the creature has forced her to go back to this very evocative abandoned house in the middle of nowhere, where the peeling wallpaper and rotting drywall stand in for Rose’s decaying psyche and the memories reemerge like so many jump scares.
Up to this point, Smile has revealed that Rose’s mother died by suicide and that Rose found the body. (Holly, the elder sibling, had already moved out.) But once she reenters the house and walks down a dark, damp hallway to her mom’s old room, we find out the other half of the story. As it turns out, Rose’s mother was still alive when Rose found her sedated and drooling on her stained mattress, and Mom (Dora Kiss) begged Rose to call an ambulance. It’s not clear, even given this context, if Mom’s death was an accidental overdose or a deliberate one, done in hopes that Rose would find her and save her at the last minute. Either way, Rose ignores her, closes the door, and walks away.
If this was an intentional cry for help, it was unfair for Mom to put the burden of saving her life on a 10-year-old child. In the flashback, young Rose is confused and scared. And she really shouldn’t blame herself as an adult for the actions of her guardian. Regardless, Rose has blamed herself ever since, putting her panic of being “like her mother,” and her career choice, into a new light. Rose was not randomly chosen by the hungry entity. This cycle of guilt and fear started a long time ago. She’s been a walking feast for most of her life.
Then Rose does something she has probably done in therapy a million times: She confronts her mother’s ghost, forgiving her younger self in the process. She turns and walks out of the room, but the monster follows her, morphing into a tall, pale, thin creature that fills the doorframe behind her. Save for the decaying house and the creature’s inhuman face — it looks like an alien monster wearing human skin more than anything — it’s almost an exact replica of the scariest moment from It Follows, in which a giant man appears in a bedroom doorway, terrifying the protagonist.
There are more similarities to David Robert Mitchell’s 2014 indie horror hit throughout Smile: The spirit, which one character says “looks like people but isn’t a person,” behaves and manifests itself a lot like Mitchell’s unnamed threat did, appearing in the background of wide shots and approaching characters with a dreamlike sense of inevitability. And as with It Follows, the only way to get rid of the creepy grinning thing that stalks you until it’s time to die, five to seven days after its initial appearance (this part echoes The Ring), is to pass its curse on to someone else.
Rose is trying to break this cycle, much like we break cycles of trauma and abuse in therapy. And if your trauma monster is literal, like Rose’s is, soaking its lair in kerosene and setting it on fire is an acceptable substitution for writing a letter to your younger self. That’s what she does, turning around and walking away from the house, as first the curtains, then the whole place, go up in flames. Rose is relieved and cleansed. She’s done it. She confronted her past — and conquered it. Unlike the characters in The Babadook, this trauma will not be with her for the rest of her life. She wins. She is free.
Triumphant in her healthy-for-a-horror-movie coping skills, Rose drives back to the city to the apartment where her ex, Joel (Kyle Gallner), the one person who has believed her this entire time, lives. There, she apologizes for pushing him away during their relationship, explaining that she has built walls around her emotions (because of the trauma, naturally), and his ability to breach them scared her so much that she ran away. But she’s not going to run anymore. She’s dealt with her trauma and is ready to start over, happy and healthy for the first time.
What happens next is the cruelest moment in the film. No, confronting your past and coming to terms with it is not enough. Rose wakes up back in the house and realizes she never left. The figure she thought was Joel was actually the entity, masquerading as the one person Rose can trust. It has trapped her in a fantasy of catharsis that cannot actually come true. This was simply her most intense hallucination yet, another instance of lost time, like those that have occurred throughout the film. The one comfort is that she now knows for certain she’s not crazy; the monster is real, and it’s standing right in front of her.
It’s got a similarly fleshy, mindless feel as the pathetic-yet-terrifying Green Man at the end of Alex Garland’s Men. But instead of transforming into a roiling ball of flesh, it rips its face off to reveal multiple grinning jaws, like the mouths of some esoteric deep-sea creature, made of raw, shiny prosthetic musculature. (The monster effects in Smile were all achieved practically, albeit gussied up with some supplementary CGI.) The creature unhinges Rose’s jaw and mashes itself down her throat, a reversal of Men’s monstrous birth.
Then Joel returns to save the day. But his good intentions are also worthless, as he arrives just in time to see Rose, now fully possessed, drench herself in kerosene and light herself on fire. The final image of the film is Rose’s burning body reflected in the iris of Joel’s eye, burning itself onto his psyche forever. Even though Rose did everything she was supposed to do — that we’re supposed to do to process our own trauma — the monster still won. The cycle will continue.
Smile writer-director Parker Finn characterizes the two endings of his film as an attempt to get ahead of audiences’ expectations. In an interview with Polygon, he said that “horror audiences have gotten so savvy … I tried to subvert that and do something that might catch them off guard.” This speaks to Smile’s repudiation-through-denial of its trauma plot; Finn coyly adds that Rose is an unreliable narrator and that “it doesn’t matter if [what happens] is real or not,” sidestepping attempts to fix a firm metaphorical meaning on the ending of his film.
It says a lot about the ubiquity of the “It’s really about trauma” trope that Finn links audiences’ expectations to the resolution of trauma at the end of a horror movie. What we want is to be reassured that monsters, external or internal, are beatable. We want to believe that the therapy jargon we pick up from pop culture and social media (not to mention our actual therapists) works as a sort of magic spell to banish our demons. Whether it’s doing so deliberately or not, Smile argues that it’s not actually that simple.
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