Regression movie full length review - A case of compelling material being grossly underserved by a lackluster script
Let's just get this straight?"Regression" has a phenomenally creepy premise.
Ethan Hawke plays Bruce, a detective investigating the claims of a religious seventeen-year-old girl (Watson) that her father not only sexually abused her and her siblings, but that her family has been involved with an insidious Satanic cult that sacrificed children amongst a series of other ceremonial horrors. This is quite literally the stuff nightmares are made of.
Alejandro Amenábar, who directed the unforgettable 2001 ghost story "The Others," was primped for a major comeback with this film, but as things so often do, they fell apart. So what went wrong here? After viewing the film and trying to make sense of what felt so off-key about it, I've come to the determination that it's an issue of a script utterly failing to handle the material it attempts to. The film is framed entirely within the context of a police investigation, which is sensible given it's a story about a crime and the solving of a mystery, but Amenábar loses all sight of character and interpersonal development in favor of what comes off as little more than a crime procedural.
Hawke and Watson's lead characters in the film fail to exist in any tangible form outside the crime-solving process, and attempts to connect the two on a half-baked romantic undercurrent are not only bizarre, but they really make no sense. There is a serious disconnect here between character and situation, in which the audience is forced to continuously assess and re-assess the conflict, but never the characters themselves. It's not even that the characters don't have depth?it's more that the script disallows them from having it in the first place. What ultimately is left after that is a sometimes intriguing, fairly visually interesting take on a subject matter that could have been gobsmacking.
The horrors of the cult and the nightmarish sequences depicting them and their midnight sorceries are genuinely chilling?at times Amenábar seems to be paying homage to "Carnival of Souls" and "Rosemary's Baby," and these scenes work on a purely visceral level. They are visually disturbing and never err into the territory of absurdity, so I do give the film credit in this regard. But what are we to make of any of it? It's hard telling with a script that is so overtly procedural and un-nuanced. There is a thematic undercurrent about religion and religious hysteria that runs throughout, but it's either too conspicuous or too underdeveloped to make any profound impact? maybe it's both.
The performances in the film are commendable. Ethan Hawke has carved a niche for himself in post-millennial psychothrillers of the sort, and he does a fine job here. Emma Watson looks and acts the part, but the character is ultimately underused and given stilted dialogue that puts her performance in danger of being phoned in. Dale Dickey is fantastic as the paranoid backwoods grandmother, while Aaron Ashmore is good but is also plugged into a character that is too free-floating in the narrative. The final reveal is predictable, but its failure to really hit hard is compounded by the fact that it is rushed and shoddily supported by dialogue and nothing else.
Overall, "Regression" is a depressingly wasted opportunity. As a crime film or a horror/thriller, it is too procedural and disconnected from character to be anything other than routine. I do find the premise fantastic, and there are some genuinely chilling moments throughout, but none of them are anchored in any sort of discernible truth. I give the film an even 5/10 for Hawke's performance and the visual and thematic triumphs, but as I watched the film, I kept thinking more than anything else that it was a terrible misfire on material that could have been outstandingly horrific.