An ugly ‘Smile’

Image courtesy Paramount Pictures 🙂

2/10 Smile is basic. It’s a basic horror movie.

In Smile, psychiatrist Rose Cotter (Sosie Bacon) is exposed to a smile demon-ghost thing, a tedious and obvious metaphor for post-traumatic stress that causes victims to hallucinate that people are smiling at them before causing them to kill themselves.

Smile is a synthesis of A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Ring and It Follows with some scenes ripped out of a small but terrific horror movie called The Wind. That makes it sound killer, but it isn’t.

It’s another horror movie with a villain who can be anywhere and look like anything, so there’s no cool monster design or specific dangers to watch for. Background characters will just smile and say “boo” until it’s time for the climax, just like every other scary movie.

Smile is obnoxiously about trauma, just like every other post-Babadook scary movie. I get it. Horror does need to be about something, but it’s played out and especially poorly done here. Also, movies are dreams, and most horror movies that don’t scream their themes at viewers play on the subconscious much more effectively– look to It Follows and The Witch for great examples.

Smile’s core concept is ripe for this sort of subtler treatment. You can’t make a movie about creepy smiles without running into the psychology of the human face, its impact and the historic importance of these things in cinema. Photography at the scale of cinematic projection stretches human faces and shows them in proportions and details that can only exist on the big screen. This is a huge part of the importance of cinema, a type of human connection we can’t get anywhere else. The baseline psychological impact of the human face and body is something Smile is primed to play with, but doesn’t.

My mind always goes back to the early seasons of “Game of Thrones,” which made a point during its many beheading scenes to not cut away, to always include a few frames of the head separated from the neck. For all our aspirations, for all of our assertions of divinity and fantasies of an afterlife, we are, all of us, machines of flesh – machines that can be disassembled. A unique and important role of film is to safely explore this anxiety, the contradiction between the innate sense that we are more than the physical and the shocking delicacy of our physical selves. Smile is one of countless films that abdicate this duty.

Smile excited me with a clever and gleeful viral marketing campaign that was eager to sneak as many smiles in front of me as it could, and I shouldn’t have let it. There’s a fantastic, cheap thrillshow to be made on the idea that you’re in an urban environment and every smiling face is a threat, but Smile isn’t about the psychological effect of the human face or about fun jump scares. It’s too busy being all about trauma, just like every other scary movie.

Smile is also all about #metoo, pausing as often as possible to focus on people not believing Cotter when she tells them there’s a body-hopping smile demon out to get her, straining to make it the movie’s central tension. What a fun, topical and completely metaphorically sound “believe all women” moment.

The ending sucks. It’s completely inappropriate to the story. Smile could just as easily have been written as a tragedy from the beginning, but instead a tragic ending impales a story about a hero who has otherwise triumphed, because horror villains from the Paranormal Activity family tree always have their way. Coming in the wake of the ‘00s horror trends, it makes a lot of sense – “torture porn” movies and high-profile remakes of ‘80s slashers, rigidly formulaic movies in which the final girl always survives, were huge in 2007, so having the monster win in the end was an easy way to differentiate the new subgenre from what was popular at that time. When a story is written as a tragedy from the ground up, it makes sense, but Smile’s tragic ending is so foreign to the rest of the movie it seems almost unjust. This is another way the movie puts cinematic trends ahead of being true to its own ideas.

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at reelentropy@gmail.com. 

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