'Smile' review: Disturbing horror flick is no laughing matter
Courtesy of Paramount Pictures
Riding on the coattails of Zach Cregger’s wild “Barbarian” comes Parker Finn’s equally wicked and eerie “Smile,” a bizarre horror blend of “It Follows” and “The Ring.” Sure, it’s packed with predictable jump scares (and some agonizing ones), but that doesn’t mean “Smile” isn’t deserving of style points. Finn’s debut feature charts a memorable course where instead of hiding his influences, he makes the wise decision of leaning into their rhythms, offering audiences a worthwhile thriller to kick off the spooky season. It’s no classic, but then again, so few are these days.
What matters is how “Smile” makes you feel for almost two hours where Finn, along with lead actress Sosie Bacon, hold you in their grasp as they expand on the short film, “Laura Hasn’t Slept,” with a sizable budget upgrade (though still fairly minimal) and a considerable amount of flair and attention to detail. Shout out editor Elliot Greenberg who carefully allows sequences to linger, optimizing the audience's unease as he smoothly transitions between locales and bloody crime scenes.
Bacon, who was a breakout on the HBO series “Mare of Easttown,” plays Rose Cutter, an overworked psychiatric therapist assigned to a ward known for its bruising hours and patient intake She sees everything from mental breaks, schizophrenic episodes to general, run-of-the-mill anxiety attacks. That is until a young woman comes into her office, pleading about an unseen, malevolent force she witnessed as her college professor bludgeoned himself to death. In near hysterics, the young woman, who is a doctoral candidate, begins exhibiting weird symptoms and screams until Rose eventually witnesses her sport a thick Cheshire Cat grin before ripping open her throat with a piece of sharded glass.
This is all before the opening credits.
It’s a traumatic incident for Rose, naturally, and her fiancé Trevor (an underused Jessie T. Usher) tries to be supportive of her situation but is also uneasy about the whole ordeal considering her mother died by suicide at a young age. Trevor is afraid mental illness runs in the family. Rose’s boss (Kal Penn) and her therapist (Robin Weigert) don’t offer much help either as she begins to experience similar phenomenons like the ones her ill-fated patient described in gruesome detail. The clock’s ticking and the only person who offers any help is an ex-boyfriend Joel (Kyle Gallner), a police officer in the midst of making a very scary connection to a sadistic pattern of suicides all leading up to the one Rose witnessed.
Finn graphs an intriguing statement on mental illness and childhood trauma that’s wrapped in an effective, horror movie package. He teases the audience, but offers moments of reprieve amid the chaos where he basically asks audiences to laugh at some of the film’s more unorthodox scenarios. Having someone as gifted as Bacon, daughter to Kevin Bacon, only elevates the script's shakier elements. She’s a performer more than capable of conveying the depth of someone on the brink of a mental collapse, but also understands the importance of being heard and understood. She’s a great heroine in a long list of final girls.
But the greatest achievement in “Smile” are the smooth technical advancements, including the use of practical effects and a healthy dose of CGI. Finn shows major convictions in the choices he makes even if some of them don’t hold water and fizzle before they reach the finish line. He’s a filmmaker with a keen sense of awareness and isn’t afraid to let audiences feel a bit uneasy before completely pulling the rug from under their feet. “Smile” marks another exceptional horror movie in an already sensational year for horror movies.
SMILE is now playing in theaters.