‘Regression’: San Sebastian Review

Dark, smart, and involving, but too safe.

Alejandro Amenabar’s San Sebastian festival opener finds Ethan Hawke and Emma Watson involved in Satanic shenanigans in 1990 Minnesota.

Alejandro Amenabar’s 1996 debut Tesis was a smartly crafted, intelligent, claustrophobically moody film about the elasticity of what we call "the truth." Much the same can be said of Regression, his third English-language film and a reversion of sorts to Amenabar’s cinematic origins. A retreat into the safe house of genre following his wide-ranging, challenging and much-misunderstood Agora (2009), this carefully-crafted tale of collective psychosis, satanic ritual abuse and pseudo-science, starring Ethan Hawke and Emma Watson, is satisfying as a compact, if over-cautious, horror-tinged psychological thriller. But it's most interesting beneath its polished, doomy surface, where complex concerns about the cultural origins of our fears are skillfully explored.

Amenabar is always clever. But Agora was clever-clever, and so became the kind of too-brainy film to be viewed with one eye on Wikipedia. Regression has plenty to say too, but but this time the ideas have been more carefully woven into the fibers of its twisting, neatly worked-out storyline. The result is a film which can and will be enjoyed on at least two levels, and which reconfirms Amenabar’s transnational reputation as perhaps Spain’s predominant American indie director.

Bruce Kenner (Hawke) is a cop, square of jaw and apparently straight-up of attitude, living in an invented small Minnesota town where the fields are expansive, the streets are slick with rain, and where an eerie half-light always seems to issue from the threatening, cloudy sky. (The film was part-shot in Canada.) In a scene which will later be replayed from a different perspective, down-at-heel local mechanic John Gray (David Dencik) miserably turns himself in. Gray hesitantly confesses to having abused his daughter (Watson), but doesn’t recall doing so. Kenner, who stands a little aloof his community, is fascinated -- but he’s ill-equipped to deal with this kind of confession.

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Expert outside help is drafted in in the form of psychotherapist Kenneth Raines (David Thewlis), a Brit for some unexplained reason adrift in Minnesota. Raines, whose gruff, pragmatic northern English manner stands in this film for credibility with a capital C, uses his trusty pendulum to hypnotize Gray, with the aim of provoking a regression and bringing Gray’s evil deeds back into memory.

Younger viewers will wonder whether it can really be true that in 1990, all those years ago, shrinks and cops actually used pendulums and polygraphs to check out suspects’ stories, and that they actually believed the results. Well, yes they did, and that’s part of Regression’s point. But being true to historical fact is one thing and being convincing is another, and these same savvy young viewers may have a hard time buying into a world when everyone seems so damn innocent. But what Regression lacks in contemporary irony, it makes up for in sincerity.

The various characters’ memory and dream visions, smoothly transitioned by editors Carolina Martínez Urbina and Geoff Ashenhurst, are initially blurred, dark and difficult to interpret for Kenner and the viewer alike, but the black hoods and scarily painted faces signal that we could well be talking black mass -- particularly since satanic ritual abuse stories are appearing on the TV news. Potentially, this is the biggest story ever to hit town, and Kenner knows it -- but he also knows he’s ill-equipped to deal with it. The SRA theme will set alarm bells ringing for fans of True Detective, but Regression’s treatment of it is very different.

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Gray claims to have seen his colleague George Nesbitt (Aaron Ashmore) in his regression, and Kenner -- surprisingly to both Nesbitt and the viewer -- has Nesbitt arrested on the back of Raines’ testimony. Thus Kenner takes the first step towards an increasingly professional and social isolation which will later take him close to full-blown paranoia.

In Regression, the normality which post Twin Peaks is generally thought to mask the hidden strangeness of rural Midwestern life is barely in evidence. Gray’s is -- perhaps literally -- the family from hell, and they're a generally suspect bunch. Having escaped from her father, Angela is now living in the local church under the hawkishly vigilant eye of the evil-obsessed Reverend Beaumont (Lothaire Bluteau), where she receives visits from Kenner; Angela’s brother Roy, who feels tangential to the story, has fled to an abandoned building in Pittsburgh; and Angela’s mad grandmother Rosa (Dale Dickey) lives alone with her cats, drinking too much and looking a little too witch-like for comfort.

Amenabar’s first stab at creating an English-language (though Spanish-produced) world recognizable to his audience -- a haunted house and Roman Egypt don’t count -- feels solid. Atmospherically, Regression does a fine job of portraying an inward-looking community where everyone has an ax to grind, everyone knows one another, and everyone has a fevered imagination. Amenabar and D.P. Daniel Aranyo keep things dark and rainy in an uncanny, hyper-real kind of way, as though to suggest that this is a story which is playing out at the level of the imagination rather than as anything real. It's an apt style for the end of a decade in which swathes of the US -- and elsewhere -- were in the grip of the Satanic Ritual Abuse fever which in the early 80s had developed out of Michelle Remembers and the McMartin preschool trial.

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As The Others in particular showed, Amenabar is an assured manipulator of horror tropes, and indeed we get to see a delicately chilling little ballerina musical box in Angela’s bedroom, a black cat which later reappears in an unnecessary but effective jump scare, and the odd mysteriously swinging door. Here, they all seem too obvious and B movie-ish, and indeed Regression is at times unusually and unnecessarily explicit in its images: there’s quite enough scare work happening elsewhere, thanks, and its subtler.

Like everything else about Regression, Hawke’s character is tightly and efficiently scripted rather than expansive, with a back story which can be summarized in two words -- “recently divorced”. As the heart of the film, it falls to Hawke to work this barest of backgrounds up into Kenner’s psychological journey, one which will bring the truths Kenner has lived by crashing down, leaving him vulnerable. Forced to choose between the dark fears generated by Satanic abuse and the supposed truths of science and the law, Kenner is compelled, along with the viewer, to seek a third way, and the sense that he’s having to dig deep inside himself to do so comes across strongly. We're happy to have Kenner as our eyes and ears -- but without ever actually liking him. And indeed, there is very little to warm to about any of characters who it sometimes feels have little existence beyond their ability to advance the plot.

Watson has been cleverly cast. (Whilst watching this film about the unconscious, viewers may unconsciously register that it’s not Angela Gray who’s the abuse victim here, but, far worse, Hermione Granger.) Watson-philes will be pleased to see that she’s delivered a subtle, well-judged performance, innocent but gently seductive, in one of those roles whose screen time is limited but which ripples through the whole story. Other performances are excellent, with Dencik and Dickey (Winter’s Bone) in particular delivering: Dickey’s distinctive features add a layer of real creepiness to her portrayal of the super-crabby, hard-drinking Rosa.

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As is often the case, most of the textual on-screen info which tops and tails Regression is useless, given that the movie itself has done a good job of telling us all we need to know. By the end, the viewer has realized that in Regression, the ever-subversive Amenabar has pulled off another of his clever tricks: rather than revealing all the strangeness beneath the surface normality, he’s revealed the normality beneath all this surface weirdness.

Production companies: MOD Entertainment, MOD Producciones, Himenoptero, First Generation Films, Telefonica Studios, Regression
Cast: Ethan Hawke, Emma Watson, David Thewlis, Lothaire Bluteau, Dale Dickey, David Dencik, Peter Macneill, Devon Bostick, Aaron Ashmore
Director, screenwriter: Alejandro Amenabar
Producers: Fernando Bovaira, Alejandro Amenabar, Christina Piovesan
Executive producers: Simon de Santiago, Alex Lalonde, Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein, Ghislain Barrois, Axel Kuschevatzky, Noah Sega
Director of photography: Daniel Aranyo
Production designer: Carol Spier
Costume designer: Sonia Grande
Editors: Carolina Martínez Urbina, Geoff Ashenhurst
Composer: Roque Banos
Casting director: Jina Jay
Sales: FilmNation Entertainment

No rating, 106 minutes

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