The phrase “smile through the pain” takes on a menacing new meaning in “Smile,” as Parker Finn uses an internationally recognized symbol of happiness to elicit fear and evil as part of the film’s exploration of trauma. A smile is nothing more than a mask, and the real horror arises from the true intention behind it.
Sosie Bacon stars as Rose Cotter, a doctor who works in an emergency psychiatric unit and has carried a heavy burden since she witnessed her mother’s suicide at ten years old. Her mental health begins to deteriorate after she assesses a young woman named Laura (Caitlin Stasey) who is brought in for witnessing a suicide. Frantic and begging for someone to believe her, Laura tells Rose that she is being taunted by a being that only she can see; one that smiles and changes its appearance all while delivering a death threat. She then kills herself right in front of a frozen Rose, who later discovers that whatever entity influenced this patient has now latched itself onto her.
Finn fleshes out Rose’s character with backstories and glimpses into the relationships with her boss, her mother, her fiance, and her older sister. Rose’s emotional turmoil is visually engrossing as a result of Bacon’s impressively frenetic performance. As Rose grapples with disturbing hallucinations and the inability to trust those around her, she fluctuates between moments of mania and disconnection. This spectrum of vulnerable paranoia and fear allows Finn to tackle the multilayered complexity of mental health as Rose attempts to convince those around her that what she is experiencing is real. While this is a tiresome (although realistic) trope in horror, these rapidly changing emotional states allow Bacon’s acting to shine. Feeling alone, despite the care from her therapist (Robin Weigert), Rose finds a sliver of solace in a police officer and former flame, Joel (Kyle Gallner), who helps her piece together the unsettling lineage of this supernatural being’s victims. While the specifics of the monster are hidden, its execution method and purpose are both revealed within a storyline that is sadly traditional and insipid in its structure.
In order to convey Rose’s mental and emotional downward spiral, Finn utilizes an array of strong camera angles that suggest the lack of consistency in her newfound reality. Slowly rotating the camera ninety degrees, inverting the camera completely upside down, invasive close-up shots on the characters’ faces, and beautiful aerial shots all provide an ominous tone with the eerie feeling of being studied and hunted. The minimalist production design, courtesy of Lester Cohen, focuses on the horrific mental state of its characters instead of painting a typical horror film aesthetic with gothic or dark features. However, there are certain color palettes that nicely symbolize the instability of Rose’s inner mind and physical surroundings. For example, the hospital where she works dons light pink walls (a nod to an old study that found the shade Bake-Miller Pink to reduce aggression) while Rose often wears blue outfits, a color often representing sadness
The plot of “Smile” is exhaustingly reminiscent of other horror predecessors such as “It Follows”, “The Ring”, “Oculus”, and even “Final Destination.” Finn elaborates on a contagious approach to death by factoring in trauma and how grief and depression can have a ripple effect, but the story does not entirely feel like its own beast. To enhance the film’s already heavily pronounced themes, composer Cristobal Tapia de Veer creates a strong soundscape of playfulness and dread which perfectly compliments the juxtaposition used throughout the film’s 116 minute runtime. The sound design and music are as unnerving as the graphic death scenes, but unfortunately come with excessive amounts of jump scares. And the special effects team from Amalgamated Dynamics constructs truly searing imagery that will both shock and delightfully disgust, especially in the third act. Their grisly prosthetic work and creative monster design have a corporeal surrealism which will have horror fans grinning from ear to ear.
“Smile” navigates unhealed trauma through a supernatural lens and mischievous juxtaposition, despite feeling like a shadow of other stories. With rare moments of dark comedy and irony, he is able to expose the forceful nature of society’s expectation to be happy and presentable despite the suffering that may lurk under one’s skin. Overall, “Smile” delivers a captivating and claustrophobic mental hellscape that will cause one to both grimace and grin.
Paramount will release “Smile” in theaters on Friday, September 30.