Horror films provide filmmakers with a creative outlet to tackle many different ideas. That has to feel pretty liberating, as the tools at one’s disposal can build wild ways to unleash terror on an audience while letting the screenplay address whatever topics one has in mind. Smile is another horror film dealing specifically with trauma. I’m starting to wonder if this is a theme with an endless amount of ideas to go with it, if younger filmmakers are just being encouraged to tap into this, or if it’s a concept that’s too universal not to cover. Whatever the case, while moody and slick enough to earn some of its jump scares, the film is also a bit of a slog, too reliant on a familiar mystery formula, and loses its footing in the end.
The film’s story follows Dr. Rose Cotter (Sosie Bacon). Working 80-hour weeks, her life is exacerbated further after witnessing a bizarre event where a patient commits suicide in front of her. While committing the act, this person never lost an unsettling grin on her face. Now Rose is seeing similarly unusual sights all over, leading her to investigate what has led to a series of people killing themselves and how they are all connected. Add on a troubled past involving mental illness in her family, and one will find that Rose has much to deal with if she intends to escape her horrifying situation.
Writer/director Parker Finn has expanded his short film, Laura Hasn’t Slept, into a nearly two-hour feature, and I certainly felt every minute. Not that I can’t handle a deliberately paced film, but Smile is devoted to having us follow a journey that has room to breathe. I only wish the screenplay gave more time to show Rose in either a balanced state of mind or at least as one with enough ability to convey clearer thoughts.
As the star of the film, Bacon turns in a solid performance. There’s a twitchiness held throughout, which speaks to being overworked and, y’know, concerned about the supernatural force creating images of creepy smiling people around her. I understand why the film would make her jumpy. At the same time, there are so many attempts to have her function as one who can both successfully investigate a series of horrific acts of self-harm yet have no idea how to communicate any of that information clearly when the time calls for it. Without a tighter movie, it becomes frustratingly redundant.
And yet, Bacon is also interacting with a series of decent supporting players and notable character actors. Kyle Gallner gets the most to do as an ex-boyfriend. He manages to deadpan and awkwardly react his way through a series of scenes that allow Smile to be funnier than I expected (sometimes to its detriment, given the chilly mood of the film). In smaller roles, Rob Morgan and Judy Reyes find the proper way to convey a shared sense of terror, respecting the material in the process. And then there’s a sympathetic Kal Penn as Rose’s superior, who just wants the best for his friend/employee.
Having a long film that figures out how to present more lived-in characters makes me somewhat conflicted, as I can appreciate how Smile wants me to be as invested as I can be. However, being a horror film featuring creepy smiles, I always wanted more immediacy to the terror I was supposed to be experiencing. There are moments, which I will get to, but because the story being told relies on ideas I’ve seen tackled elsewhere but dragged out in ways that ultimately became unsatisfying, I can only go so far in my appreciation.
However, when Smile does choose to be scary, director Finn does have a good handle on things. Some choices to deliver jarring edits, complete with stings on the soundtrack, are acceptable. I get it; movies can throw in some jump scares and have fun with them. However, there are moments of pure dread that will undoubtedly get under the skin of many.
Part of that relies on the nature of the threat, which amounts to something that can seemingly be anywhere and do anything. That can feel unfair, making it seem like things are hopeless for our hero. However, I still appreciated how a scene could quickly shift in its level of horror thanks to a disturbing reveal. One instance involves a phone call and a shot from behind one’s head that’s among the scariest moments of the year. Other effective moments allow dark spaces to fill the viewer’s minds with possibilities. Shame that it’s not capitalized on more.
Not helping matters is how the film leaves things. The journey to the climax is compelling enough, as we know the reality of the situation, and Rose’s internal struggles will have to come to a head. I even appreciated how far and wild things become from a visual standpoint during a particular standoff. And yet, between a few dangling threads that include characters who simply disappear (Jessie T. Usher) and an inevitability factor that makes me wonder what the point of everything is supposed to be, it’s hard to feel satisfied by an ending that presents certain extremes when the options and morals seem so thinly defined.
I appreciate a horror film that understands how to capture a certain mood (even with some random bits of humor). As it’s just now becoming “spooky season” at the time of Smile’s release, having a relatively original horror film from a major studio is all well and good. Not hurting is the pretty strong score and the attempts at style (though Finn is no Gore Verbinski, despite The Ring feeling like a clear inspiration). However, as another attempt to combine a creepy concept with characters dealing with their past trauma, Smile doesn’t have much to offer beyond scattered thrills, and it takes a long time to get there.