Horror mystery films are a difficult genre to develop, especially when it comes to ones based around actual events. It’s hard to juggle the building of the suspense while remaining true to the real-life incidents. Writer/Director Alejandro Amenábar has proven he can master these elements to deliver a truly thrilling experience with a satisfying climax, but his latest effort, Regression, proves that maybe his fiction is much stronger than his attempt at facts.
In his previous horror film The Others, he understood how to effectively affect the mood by manipulating light and shadow and using fog as a way to bathe the film in mystery. These aesthetic decisions only work well with a thoughtfully developed story and Regression is anything but that. In fact, Regression feels like a regression in Amenábar’s career, trading in genuine intrigue for superficial storytelling and an attempt at a societal observation. Despite some solid camera work and exhilarating dream sequences, the story these elements were meant to strengthen is far too weak for them to make any sort of a difference.
The Others, as well as previous film Open Your Eyes/Abre Los Ojos, succeed because the stories are weaved in a way that remains compellingly cryptic, but at the same time giving you every element you need to figure it out. Their trail of breadcrumbs lead to a reveal that both supports the progression of the story and fits with every clue you may have unknowingly received. These twists are intricately woven into a complex design, but Regression knits their “twist” with the intricacy of tying two pieces together into a blunt knot. Every element feels familiar and unrefined, with no attempt to elevate this “based on a true story” typical film. If you make it past the point of caring about the predictable direction Regression stomps towards (which many won’t), then you’ll find yourself figuring out the so-called mystery well before the film has even gotten close to ending. The biggest problem with the film, aside from the lazy storytelling, is that it spoon feeds the audience like they are the babies the supposed Satanists eat. It is impossible to build suspense when the audience is candidly shown every detail with lingering focus shots, just to make sure we know they are important. Amenábar succeeded before by introducing such elements in a casual way, give them the same focus as any other item in the shot. His audience pandering proved to be his downfall, not trusting us enough to put the pieces together and throwing loaves of bread at us when we only needed breadcrumbs.
In the entire film, the two best decisions Amenábar made were casting Ethan Hawke and Emma Watson. No matter the role, whether he’s an aging father or a time traveling agent or a conflicted drone operator, Hawke is consistently an asset. He always approaches every project with a serious determination, despite how ridiculous all the other elements around him are. He becomes fully invested in each role, and his performance is one of the few enjoyable parts of this film. His chemistry with co-star Watson is undeniable. Watson captivates us with her performance as well as can be expected with the downfalls of a shotty story. Like Hawke, Watson’s effort is beyond apparent and deserves to be commended.
The only redeemable part of the film, aside from the performances, was the realization that neither religion or science were the correct answer. In this instance, both were culpable, and for once, helped each other in the worst way imaginable. In this case, absolute belief in either religious dogma or scientific hypotheses will lead to a one-sided investigation. According to Regression, the only way to view things objectively is to view them from a skeptical form of agnostic secularism. Now that is an idea I can get behind, but unfortunately, Regression treats the film more like a dull Salem witch hunt rather than looking deeper into the phenomenon. Sure, both the film and Salem find their villains, but neither investigate how or why people knowingly let this happen. It was really the only part of Regression that Amenábar thought not to force feed us.
Rating: ★★★★ (4/10 stars)