Frown! This is good horror that could’ve easily been great.
“The first monster that an audience has to be scared of is the filmmaker”, Wes Craven said once, affirming that nothing is more horrifying than the contents of our imagination. Smile is, mostly, a fantastic display of competence by its primary hand, Parker Finn, whose feature debut it is. How he transforms the smile – the most typical of banalities, the most ubiquitous beacon of everydayness – into a panoramic staging ground of horror is legitimately impressive.
But when he fumbles, it’s obvious and glaring. No film operates on concept alone – when the details don’t add up, Smile is frustrating and hollow.
What we like
This bit contains spoilers. Read at your own discretion.
In 2022, there’s no such thing as ‘fresh eyes’. Even though most people enter the cinema with only the impressions the trailer of a film made on them, the contextual knowledge – the sum total of media consumed, expectations created, lived up to and un-met – each contemporary viewer carries poses a great and formidable challenge to the filmmaker.
Cynics will say there are no new ways to do things, that the well has long gone dry. But they’re wrong: When a filmmaker tells a story in such a manner wherein the dots connect sumptuously, it’s evidence that magic can still very much be made on-screen. Over the course of the last few months alone, we’ve seen how that translates heartwarmingly, harrowingly and bizarrely.
Smile is where this magic almost happens. Early on, it shows majestically how it benefits from a less-is-more philosophy: Finn weaponises his inversion of the signifiers of a smile (happiness, goodness, godliness) to legitimately devastating effect, which is amplified by the constituent parts of sound design and cinematography, that deepen his authorial flourish. So much of what Smile does so well is show how skin-searingly horrifying a smile can be. This is what gives the details that (almost) cohere as ‘plot’ credence.
Kevin Bacon’s IRL daughter Sosie Bacon plays Dr. Rose Cotter, a therapist who witnesses a distressed patient smile, um, weirdly before slitting her own face open in the shape of a smile with a broken piece of ceramic.
A word on this smile: It’s not normal. It begins with a stillness. Then, as the eyes narrow, fixatingly, into an unsettling blankness that isn’t without a foreboding sense of blood-thirst, the lips arch into a theatrical U shape where too much teeth is shown. Chills – and then some.
Cotter witnesses this and what happens immediately after: The suicide. Reeling from the ensuing trauma, she is haunted by visions of that patient, which remain as visions until she can no longer ignore their effects on her lived experience. Her devolution from composed, empathetic practitioner to paranoid, delirious victim is another area where the film sparkles. It’s so easy to root for her, because she’s so skilled in making you do so. Her pain, her fear, her fate – all of it is infectious and expertly dramatised.
Soon, she learns that she is beset by a curse that connects her unravelling to the unresolved trauma of her past, which stems from her guilt at not saving her suicidal mother when she was younger. The curse is passed on from witnessing the suicide of those afflicted with it, and escapable only if the afflicted murders someone else. The film’s best moments don’t derive from the constant jump scares or CGI trickery but from Bacon’s performance of a role premised on its player sinking to the depths far beneath rock bottom, where the only way out is death by someone or some thing. She animates that tension by fighting for her life – even as she stands at the furthest extremity of the brink.
Her investigations cause her path to overlap with her once-boyfriend’s Joel (Kyle Gallner), a detective, who becomes her emotional support when her husband (Jessie T. Usher), like her sister (Gillian Zinser), bizarrely (disingenuously) doesn’t take her very obvious (unignorable) suffering seriously.
As the action progresses, she realises that a demonic figure which causes her to hallucinate, is the manifestation of her unreconciled past, and whose demonic smile masks a horrifying (which was the aim) visage, is stalking her, mentally and physically. It morphs into various people close to her before crawling into her mouth, possessing her, making her smile that weird smile, and, finally, causing her to immolate herself.
Joel, arriving late to the scene, witnesses all this and inherits the burden of the curse.
A collective sigh resounds throughout the theatre.
What we didn’t like
What follows are two glaring loose ends that render the film not merely incomplete but poorly realised:
- Nothing explains why Cotter’s husband, so affectionate and supportive in the beginning, suddenly becomes cold and distrusting. And, why, after a certain point, he’s forgotten altogether
- The conceit that beneath a forced smile is unresolved trauma that follows you around till you confront it is fruitful terrain for horror, but there are several details along the chain of association that it hinges on that just don’t connect, chief of which is that the demon-thing is only introduced very late in the film and that the link between it and the curse needing a suicide to be witnessed in order to perpetuate itself is never made.
Both are faults of the exposition, which should have been addressed and corrected at the story-boarding phase. There is a haphazard stacking of extraneous detail over a foundation that very easily could have told a convincing and memorable – for the right reasons – story were it not encumbered with narrative filigree it really didn’t need.
Dismissing and/or not accounting for behavioural changes in a character strains credulity and credibility. And so does glossing over information ostensibly provided to illuminate and drive the action. In this case, it makes T. Usher feel like a black insert into the horror of white people whose trauma looks like Marilyn Manson without a good stylist.
It makes what could’ve been mentioned along with the great films it references – The Ring, Ju-On and It Follows – a reminder of what could have been.