source: Warner Bros.

Movie Review: The Cell (2000) *****

The Cell (2000) starring J.Lo is a science fiction horror movie about entering a serial killer’s mind to locate a victim who hasn’t yet died in his basement. It’s very sexual, very gory. It looks like the music video for Closer by Nine Inch Nails and somehow feels a bit like Silent Hill, though its closest genetic relative is surely Silence of the Lambs (1991).

I can’t explain why this is one of my favorite cozy movies BUT IT IS. There is something truly SO COZY and reassuring about the flimsy serial killer genre. Where they are monsters, not people. Where there is some mystery to unpack and not merely senseless violence. Where law enforcement CARE and are hellbent on solving problems.

As usual, mental illness is thrown under the bus for our serial killer here. He’s got a kind of fictitious viral schizophrenia called “Whelan’s Infraction,” which is magically brought about by trauma involving water. In this case, our killer was “activated” by a violent baptism.

Law enforcement catches him early in the movie, but Whelan’s Infraction has rendered him sorta-semi-braindead and he has a living victim with ~40 hours left.

Luckily my wife J.Lo has been working as an unusual kind of therapist: she goes into the mind of a sick billionaire’s son using a fictitious machine. This “neurological connectic transfer system” can “map the mind and send the signal to another party.”

This is in an era (have we even left that era?) where people are obsessed with this idea that there are broken little children inside serial abusers, giving them mystique and charm. Its story depends on the extremely common mistaken assumption that a childhood history of abuse explains adult abusers. “Why Does He Do That?” by Lundy Bancroft is an interesting rebuttal to that myth (though I recommend reading it with caution, as it’s very triggering).

I don’t mind the pseudoscience, including the bad psychology. Everything about The Cell feels unreal, inside and outside the shared dreamscapes, in a manner that is extremely cohesive. After all, The Cell is firmly in the fantasy universe where cops Actually Do Stuff and serial killers are brilliant; why bother with real science?

As I get older, the more I see The Cell as a fetish fantasy. It’s always obviously had major elements of fetishism. As I’ve grown, I’ve seen how many people really have explicitly serial killer, horror, and murder-related fantasies as part of their sex life, and i’m like, ohhhhhh. That’s what I’m watching. Perhaps my associations of the security in a well-controlled BDSM environment are also why I find it so cozy!

The performances are really good too.

Vince Vaughn is the lead detective in the movie. Yes, THAT Vince Vaughn. His role is not meant to be remotely comic, but I still laugh at everything he says. They realize the killer (Vincent D’Onofrio) has an albino dog. And Vince Vaughn says all grittily, “He’d love a dog like that.” SURE VINCE. His performance doesn’t detract from the film; I would have no notes if I weren’t familiar with him from other media.

The ability for J.Lo to commit to a movie where she was surely not seeing things we’re seeing, in sequential order, cannot be overstated. Director Tarsem Singh does a LOT of practical effects, but even so, there’s a lot here demanding an actor’s very best imagination. She’s extremely believable. (Fun fact: according to IMDB, Sandra Bullock was originally meant to play this role. I can imagine it, but I also think it would have been a weird fit for her career.)

The physicality of Vincent D’Onofrio’s performance is so amazing. He manages to feel both like a vulnerable boy at times, and like a looming monster at others. He is beautiful and ugly.

Last time I watched The Cell, I was coming off a Hannibal/Lambs binge, and I enjoyed it but the story felt more lacking. Coming at it from watching more horror movies, it felt pitch-perfect. This is a great example of a movie that makes more emotional sense than rational sense, much like The Fountain (2006).


On a note about the format I watched: The Cell doesn’t seem popular enough to have a remaster, so my version has those dots up in the corner indicating reel changes. There’s a lot of other visual grit too! The Cell is very consciously cut so that there are dramatic tonal/visual shifts whenever reels change! Many movies used to be edited with TV commercial breaks in mind as well, and it’s striking how anachronistic it feels a quarter of a century later.

(Image credit: Warner Bros.)

(This review was adapted from my live watch thread on Bluesky.)

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