Friday, November 21, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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'Gothika': Thriller leaves Berry (and audience) in the dark

Seattle Times movie critic

Poor Halle Berry — if an Oscar isn't enough to bring better scripts than "Gothika" your way, what's the point of it all? In Mathieu Kassovitz's overwrought and underlit thriller, Berry shrieks, breathes heavily and looks winsomely tortured as Dr. Miranda Grey, a prison psychologist arrested for a crime she doesn't remember committing — the murder of her husband (Charles S. Dutton).

Once in prison — a forbidding edifice, where they're presumably saving money by illuminating the entire building with a couple of 40-watt bulbs — Miranda must cope with her former colleagues treating her as an inmate, and a mentally ill one at that. And then there's the problem of that lank-haired, blank-eyed scary girl who keeps popping up in odd places; she's like the blond cousin of the wraith in "The Ring," a walking horror-movie cliché in desperate need of styling mousse.

She's something of an anomaly in "Gothika," a movie that invariably chooses style over substance and logic. The ink-blue light gives everything a shadowy elegance — that is, when you can see what's going on in the murk — particularly the cheekbones of Berry and fellow inmate Penélope Cruz.

When the two sit on a bench together, it's as if they're in some special prison for supermodels, sentenced to 20 years with no mascara. And a scene in the women's shower room looks like a Vogue layout; the women are all lit so that their flawless skin seems to glow in the dark. (Yes, of course they shower in the dark. Everything in "Gothika" is kept in the dark, especially the audience.)

Movie review

Showtimes and trailer

"Gothika," with Halle Berry, Robert Downey Jr., Charles S. Dutton, John Carroll Lynch, Bernard Hill, Penélope Cruz. Directed by Mathieu Kassovitz, from a screenplay by Sebastian Gutierrez. 96 minutes. Rated R for violence, brief language and nudity. Several theaters.

Kassovitz, who directed the wildly gruesome (and terrific) French thriller "The Crimson Rivers" a couple of years back, seems more interested here in endless dark hallways, weird stigmata effects and jittery camera tricks than in his actors. Berry seems alone and adrift — there's nobody for her to catch a spark from. Even Robert Downey Jr., who can usually light up a movie, is wasted in a nothing role as one of Miranda's colleagues.

And she's not helped at all by Sebastian Gutierrez's screenplay, in which every character is generic. We don't get any sense of what kind of person Miranda is, except that she's supposedly a genius psychologist (though you'll figure out the bad guy's identity long before she does). Nor is anyone else given any kind of character detail; they're all pieces on a game board, being pushed from square to square in the dark.

Those who enjoy formulaic shivers (1. scary music swells, 2. scary apparition suddenly appears out of nowhere, 3. audience screams) will likely find "Gothika" tolerable. But the cast and director are capable of much more than this strange and often off-putting horror tale, in which it's ultimately the audience that is imprisoned.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company


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