By Jonathan Wojcik
ENTRY 08: SMILE
This may be the newest movie we'll be reviewing here, having released in only September 2022. Written and directed by Parker Finn, it's an expansion of his 2020 short film Laura Hasn't Slept.
Sosie Bacon plays psychiatrist Rose Cotter, whose worst week ever begins with one of her patients, a student named Laura Weaver. Laura recently witnessed her professor take his own life, and claims to have been "stalked" by "something" ever since. Something that can take the form of anyone at any time, smiling at her and telling her she's soon going to die. It's reduced her to an exhausted, nervous wreck in only a few days, and of course nobody believes she's experience anything other than trauma induced hallucinations.
Rose is just about done telling the poor woman that what she's experiencing are clearly some sort of trauma-induced hallucinations when the patient suddenly screams, inexplicably terrified of Rose before exhibiting some sort of intense seizure. But as Rose calls for help, the room suddenly goes silent, and she turns around to find Laura simply standing there, staring and smiling. Smiling even as she picks up a shard of broken ceramic and slowly slices her neck open, killing herself in front of the bewildered doctor.
Rose is obviously shaken. She tries to tough it out and continue with her job regardless, until the following day when another of her patients goes from grinning at her to screaming at her that she, too, is going to die. Rose calls for help to restrain the man for threatening her, but it's later found that, to everyone else's perspective - including his own - he had been lying down sleeping all along. Rose's boss is less than pleased, believing she's suffering a mental break that interferes with her job, and forces her to take paid leave.
Rose continues to experience strange phenomena through the next day, even encountering a manifestation of Laura in her own home, and decides to see her own therapist Doctor Madeline Northcott (Robin Weigert) for presumably the first time in several years. Both still believe that what she's experiencing is likely trauma induced, and here we learn that Rose had already spent years in therapy for having witnessed her own mother's suicide when she was only a child.
The next day, Rose comes to her little nephew's birthday party only to discover that the gift she wrapped up for him contains the dead body of her own cat. As she clutches her former pet and swears she has no memory of how it got into the box, she's confronted with another Smiler (not an official term, but what else do we call them?) and driven backwards through a glass table, shredding her arms and guaranteeing that no child present will never forget the worst birthday present of all time. Not to mention, of course, ruining what little remained of her already strained relationship with her sister Gillian (Holly Cotter).
Rose is picked up from the hospital by her fiancee, Trevor (Jessie T. Usher) and confesses to him everything that's happened thus far, only for him to admit his own fears that she may have inherited her mother's mental illness, and that it may not be something he can spend the rest of their lives together dealing with.
Still suffering alone, Rose decides to do her own digging, and finds a news report on the death of her patient's professor, which notes that he was grinning as he took his own life. She pays a visit to the professor's wife, posing as a journalist, and learns that the man had felt tormented by a malevolent presence after seeing another person commit suicide, another week earlier, even leaving behind a roomful of disturbing sketches. When she admits to the widow that she's begun to experience the same beings, the woman is only furious with her and throws her out of her home.
Rose then turns to her ex husband Joel (Kyle Gallner), begging him to access law enforcement files for her but wisely keeping her reasons as vague as she can. She asks him to check any records associated with the late professor, finding a police report he filed not long before his death and identifying the name of the woman who died in front of him. She asks him to repeat this search on the same woman, and he finds that she, too, witnessed a suicide only days prior: a strange, smiling man who approached her in a parking lot and took a pair of shears to his own throat. Rose leaves, still not admitting her reasons.
The following morning, Rose comes home to an intervention by her therapist and Trevor. Angered by both of them for going behind her back and refusing to believe what she's going through, she effectively dumps Trevor on the spot. She then returns to see her sister with a folder full of grisly photos and documents from her ongoing research, and Gillian is only horrified by Rose's bizarre behavior - all too reminiscent, in her mind, of their mother's final days.
This particular moment culminates in the most startling moment of the film, which was unfortunately spoiled by all of its trailers: while Rose is back in her car, Gillian appears to approach her and knock on the window. Then, this happens.
Later that night, Rose is contacted by Joel, who has continued investigating the pattern of deaths since she left his apartment. It goes back far enough that he can't deny something unexplainable is threatening Rose's life, but there's one single person who seems to have "broken the chain," now living out the rest of his life in prison. Joel helps arrange a visit between him and Rose, where Rose learns that the man survived only by committing murder with at least one witness; it's not suicide that's actually necessary, but any death that leaves mental scars on someone else. Psychological trauma, induced by death, is the vector of the entity.
When the man realizes that Rose is a current "carrier," he flies into an understandable panic, terrified that Rose might pass it back to him by killing herself at any moment.
Rose returns home after this harrowing experience, good old doctor Madeline drops by, apologizing for the intrusive intervention while checking that Rose isn't a danger to herself or others.
...But partway through their conversation, Rose receives a call. I know there have been browser issues with video clips, but this warrants aother video clip. Sorry if it stutters or glitches on you. No jump scares or gore/death, just extra spooky directing!
It's admittedly a little cheesier when the Madeline-Smiler begins to threaten Rose in a reverberating demon voice, but still dreadful enough, especially as it approaches rose with much heavier, more thunderous steps than should be possible. There's even a little homage to Alien as Madeline corners Rose against the wall and thick, transparent drool cascades from her smiling mouth, echoing the iconic shot of the Xenomorph mere inches from Ellen Ripley's face. It's also not as obvious in screenshots or low-quality clips, but I should mention there's a subtle effect making every "Smiler" look noticeably higher resolution than the surrounding scene or "superimposed" onto the footage. When you notice it, it's wonderfully unsettling.
This scene cuts straight the haggard and desperate Rose parked outside the hospital where she used to work, hiding a knife in the sleeve of her jacket as she contemplates what she may have to do. What follows is an almost grotesquely comedic sequence as her supervisor witnesses her stabbing one of her former patients to death, all three of them cartoonishly over-acting a situation which, by the time her boss is peeling his own face off, turns out to be a nightmare...though she has, in fact, been parked outside the building with that very knife.
It is then that she decides to return to where her pain truly began; her remote and long abandoned childhood home, where a much younger Rose she once stood by, failing to call for any help, as her mother perished from a drug overdose. Most importantly, she chooses to confront the entity and the birthplace of her trauma alone, so that whether or not she can "beat" its curse, it will have no one else to transfer into.
Staying the night in the decrepit house, Rose encounters an exact recreation of her mother mere moments before death, and the two have a tense conversation about their buried feelings; how her mother spent years feeling trapped without escape, and that despite being only a few years old at the time, Rose has grown up wracked with guilt for doing nothing to save her mother's life. Rose is well aware that this is all an illusion, however; she finally asks the being what it really wants from her, and her "mother" only laughs about how "inviting" Rose's mind is as the imitation sinks into shadow.
The being reemerges from the darkness as a towering, ghoulish parody of the dead woman, and manages to pin Rose to the floor with just one oversized hand. Rose enjoys a badass hero moment as she fights back, lights everything on fire and appears to escape, returning to Joel's apartment having seemingly beaten Smiley's seven day cycle. "Joel," however, is just another Smiler, and Rose finds herself right back in front of the house as she runs from him. It's the very same moment the real Joel happens to arrive at the house, having followed Rose against her wishes. Knowing he is either the entity or its next victim, Rose runs screaming back into the house and slams it shut, locking Joel outside and locking herself inside with a very much un-charred Smilemom.
As Rose slumps to the floor in defeat, the ghastly figure laughs, and keeps laughing, and begins to pull its own smile wider. And wider...
Ripping off its skin, the figure distorts into a raw, bloody humanoid with multiple layers of teeth and gums in its huge, dangling maw. Rose doesn't fight back as the entity reaches its fingers into her mouth and stretches her jaws impossibly wide, slowly leaning in and beginning to enter her body as we cut back to Joe... who breaks his way into the house only to find Rose dousing herself in gasoline.
Rose lights up a match, smiling, and we all know the fate that may now await the detective as the film ends.
MONSTER ANALYSIS: THE SMILER
The first reviews I ever read before we went to see Smile had an interesting take on its entertainment value: that it will scratch the Halloween "scary movie" itch for casual audiences while boring the average horror fan with such predictable genre tricks as jump scares or musical stings, but potentially impressing some of the "more hardcore" horror fans with how those old trappings are actually utilized. This sounded a little silly to me, to be honest, your typical film-school overanalysis, but by the end of the movie I knew exactly what they were getting at. The jump scares and other cliche's really have divided a lot of audiences, but while they tend to be gratuitously shoehorned into horror films of every conceivable variety, Smile is a movie where they actually belong. The entity itself tortures its victims by abruptly appearing anywhere, at any time, as anyone, just often enough to keep them constantly on edge, deprive them of sleep and drive them deeper into hopelessness. The "cheap" scares aren't simply how the movie is being shot, but literally how the phenomenon is manifesting to its protagonist, perfectly spaced through her on-screen mental deterioration.
If you're easily startled by these scares, then you can appreciate all the better what Rose is going through. If you're not someone who startles, then the movie doesn't need you to be, because the horror comes more from watching helplessly as the entity sets up that next cruel trick, and you almost get the impression that the entity "knows" we might see its attacks coming; that it's just another part of the sick game it's playing.
And if the director were merely falling back on easy techniques, the rest of the story wouldn't avert so many genre stereotypes. Rose clings to her scientific reasoning for about as long as she possibly can before conceding that she's dealing with something beyond that understanding, she never makes as suicidally foolhardy a decision as you might expect from even the next best horror lead, and other characters are much more realistic in their judgment than I'm accustomed to in fiction; in any other movie, I feel as though the character of Joel would have kept diminishing Rose's ordeal for far longer into the script, even after going over the evidence we all know points to something dreadfully abnormal at work.
The direction also does a fantastic job of emphasizing just how terrifying this creature is to contend with; even other mind-warping monsters, in my filmgoing experience, prefer to attack when they can catch their victim relatively alone, no matter how arbitrary that may be. You've probably all seen what I'm talking about at some point in some form of media, even if you don't regularly watch horror; a paranormal villain that can manipulate illusion or even reality itself, but still biases heavily to preying on the victim's literal isolation, more likely to attack when no one else is watching. Even the antagonist of Stephen King's IT preferred to lure its victims away from any potential witnesses or stalk them through remote, claustrophic locales, even though it was already invisible to anyone other than its intended prey, even though it could (and did) put entire crowds of onlookers into a trance-like state if it so pleased.
Smiles, on the other hand, will come straight for you, in broad daylight, surrounded by your friends and family making to ensure that you become the scariest thing in the room to everyone else, socially isolating you to cultivate the despair on which it thrives. We know from the start how this looks from the other end, too, when Laura clearly perceived Rose herself as a Smiler, and Rose could do nothing as the invisible being took Laura's body on the spot.
I most appreciate that there's never any point at which Rose or Joel's research leads them to any urban legend, ghost story or "occult" knowledge; that the movie never nudges the viewer to fit its antagonist into any nameable box. There is simply a thing. A weird, terrible, awful thing that, somehow, inhabits and travels through the interconnected channels of human trauma as naturally as some deranged eel through an exceptionally fucked up river. Or, perhaps, it is that Trauma, an even more brutal Babadook scenario without the quasi-happy ending. I do, however, get the strange impression of a "divine" entity, as did my spouse when we saw it in theaters. It's hard to pin down exactly where this impression came from for either of us, but I guess the unstoppable nature of the being, its remorseless sadism toward humankind and the cycle of slaughter it perpetuates just read to us as some primordial force that might have once been worshipped, maybe something that was even at one time benevolent, but has taken to feeding itself its own "sacrifices" in a world that has forgotten it. Is that too trope-y after all? I feel as if I wouldn't like this idea if the movie went out of its way to suggest it, but it feels strangely "right" to me now that it's formed all on its own; maybe it's not really that I'm bored by explanation, per se, but bored by how easily fiction often feeds it to us?
Even the final form it takes feels more "derivative" on paper than it is in execution. I've seen a lot of skinless ghoulies with messed-up mouths, but there's a wonderful quality to this one that isn't quite so common in modern horror, a madness to the lidless eyes and the smiles in its smiles in its smiles that leans more towards authentic childhood nightmare imagery than the excessive edginess suggested by its basic concept. And I very much doubt that the skinless, multi-jawed figure is the entity's "true" form in any sense, but its human disguise coming to "resemble" its true self about as much as a jellyfish would "resemble" a human if you put bones in it or a cactus would "resemble" a helicopter if you threw it in the air.
Like the aforementioned Babadook, Mr. McSmile is also both a narrative and in-universe manifestation of trauma, but the conclusion is a much darker one, and it's not because Rose fails to confront or deal with her problems. Much more harshly, it's because no one else is there for her until it's too late, and even when someone finally does care about her, they still don't listen to her. You can't blame Joel for coming to the aid of someone he loves, but the entity wins the moment he defies Rose's final wish, tries to play the hero and follows her to her old house. No matter how understandable that decision is, it is still one that ignores Rose's feelings in a self-centered way that only worsens the situation, and we're left never knowing if she really could have otherwise broken the monster's cycle, perhaps even with her life intact. Whereas the Babadook's conclusion was more about the benefits of owning your own problems and taking control of yourself, Smile's conclusion is more about what can happen when someone's entire support group fails utterly to respect their needs.