'Smile': An Intense Horror Film That Delivers On Scares, But Lacks Some Substance
It's no secret that most horror movies as of late have been about trauma. It may not be the main focus of the film, necessarily, but trauma usually ends up playing a role at one point or another. Granted, the exploration of trauma in horror films isn't necessarily a new thing, but the re-contextualization of trauma in regards to evolving attitudes towards mental health is something that has cropped up rather significantly in the past few years. While some films may be a bit more subtle about this, or deal with it somewhat indirectly, Smile tackles it head-on. The film is fully about trauma, and the psychological toll it can have on a person. This may be surprising for some, as the marketing doesn't specifically address this, but it ends up being one of the better depictions of trauma in this recent wave of trauma-based horror films. However, the film as a whole is another story, as it feels a bit uneven, and plays it a bit too safe in certain moments.
The film centers on Dr. Rose Cotter (played by Sosie Bacon), a psychiatrist who witnesses the suicide of a patient. After this, she begins to experience haunting visions and events, and grows increasingly paranoid. Convinced that she is cursed, she investigates these occurrences, and tries to lift the curse once and for all. The film deals heavily with suicide, which is not something I was expecting going into it. I tried to go into this one relatively blind, so I wasn't sure what the film was going to be about beyond the creepy smiling faces that were so prominent in the posters and trailers for the film. While I wouldn't say that this film explores trauma and suicide in the most subtle of ways, and it could have dug into these themes a bit deeper, but it does take a more thorough and engaging look at it than most recent horror films. It's a decent allegory at the very least, and depicts the psychological impact of trauma in an intense and highly effective way.
While the film doesn't hold back in how it depicts suicide and trauma, it does seem to struggle in whether it wants to be more grounded or more heightened. It does a decent job of being these in various moments, but it doesn't feel as cohesive as it should. It often feels as if the film is holding back from being too weird or too realistic. If it leaned just a little further in one direction or the other, it might have helped just a little bit. Personally, I feel like it misses the opportunity to do a little more with Rose's visions, as the moments where it really lets loose and provides some haunting imagery are some of the best parts of the film. It does use them sparingly, which does let the film's climax hit especially hard, but I feel like it could have gone a little further here. I probably wouldn't have had an issue with this if the film built to it's finale a little smoother, or if it maintained a more consistent atmosphere, but it just feels a bit uneven for my taste.
Thankfully, the film does have some solid craft on display, especially its cinematography and its score. Charlie Sarroff uses slow pans and dutch angles to heighten the tension so well, and he allows the camera to linger on certain moments to really let some of the more frightening imagery sink in. I also liked how he used some almost Jonathan Demme-esque close-ups in some scenes, as it gives the film a small dose of intimacy, and allows the scarier moments to hit a bit harder. I am a little confused by his repeated use of upside down shots, but I wasn't bothered by it too much. Cristobal Tapia de Veer's score manages to be both reminiscent of the synth heavy scores you might hear in an 80s horror film, while also feeling more modern and unique. It really got under my skin, and I mean that in the best possible way. It's tense and adds to the film's scarier sequences so perfectly.
I was especially impressed with Sosie Bacon's performance, as she is so compelling and sells Rose's descent into madness nicely. The role is a bit underwritten, but she absolutely nails what is being asked of her, and brings a fair amount of pathos to the role. It's easily one of the better horror performances I've seen this year, and is simply magnetic here. I was also surprised by Kyle Gallner's performance, as it is one of the better ones I've seen from him. Again, the role isn't the most well-written, but he gives his character some personality, and his scenes with Bacon are quite good. I was quite happy to see Rob Morgan in this film, as he is an extremely reliable actor. He only shows up for one scene, but it is easily one of, if not the best scene of the whole film. He embodies his character so fully, and brings the right amount of gravitas for the film. It's a scene that could have been easily swallowed up in the rest of the film, but in Morgan's hands, it is a knockout, and highly memorable.
I can chalk up some of my issues with the film to it being writer/director Parker Finn's debut feature, as it is clear he has some areas to improve on. Most of the film's issues are your standard first feature problems, as Finn is likely still figuring some things out. That said, he shows a ton of potential as a horror director, as the film's scares are quite effective. It does rely a bit much on jumpscares, but the bulk of them are so well-placed and well-crafted that it didn't bother me too much. The film tries to cultivate a dark, unsettling atmosphere, but it never fully settles into it. It gets awfully close to it, sure, but it feels a bit distant in places. A little more consistency would have been a big boost to this film, but it's not like the film is incoherent or anything. I will say that the film owes a lot to 2014's It Follows, as the two share some similarities. Both are horror films with a mostly unseen entity as the antagonist, and both films use this as an allegory for a larger theme, but they are both concerned with different things overall. I would argue that It Follows is the better film from top-to-bottom, but that's not to say that Smile isn't without merit. There is some good filmmaking on display, but there's still some things that Finn needs to work on. I would be curious to see another film from him, as he certainly has potential.
Smile may have surprised me in how it handles trauma, and it takes a few twists and turns that I didn't see coming, but it more or less plays out like you would probably expect. It feels like a bit of a mash-up between It Follows and The Ring, and as stated above, it has several similarities to both films. However, there is a spark of originality here, and while it hits some predictable beats, it delivers on scares and has some interesting things going on under the surface. I do wish that it would have dug a little deeper in some places, but overall, I can't complain too much. It has its issues, but it's still quite thrilling, and one of the better trauma-centric horror movies to come out within the past couple of years.