In the 1980s, or so we are reliably informed by this film (which is, apparently, influenced by real events), there was a lot of Satan worship going on in the ol' U.S. of A. and you couldn't turn on the TV without hearing some group panicking about them.
Who are satanists? What do they eat? What music do satanists listen to? Does the Dark Lord validate parking? that kind of thing...
The story is set in 1990, in a small Minnesotan town, in this highly charged and paranoid environment. Detective Bruce Kenner (played wonderfully by Ethan Hawke) gets across his desk the sort of case nobody wants. Angela (Emma Watson doing a fairly decent American accent), who is now currently living at a church and being cared for by the priest and the nuns, is accusing her father, John Gray, of child molestation. A psychiatrist (the always welcome David Thewlis) is brought in to assist with the investigation as John, who has admitted guilt, is having memory loss and needs hypnosis and regression therapy to unravel what really happened. As the two investigators dig deeper into the clues and psyches of the ones involved, the story starts to expand and unravel to include satanic rituals and fear that may spread far across the country.
On the surface Regression is the stuff of fun, pulp thrillers. A shabby detective, who doesn't play by the rules and lives by his hunch, gets a case that leads him and his psychologist sidekick through a bizarre twist of events where the answers always seem to be just out of reach. Throw in some devil worship hokum, a good dollop of paranoia, a grand conspiracy theory and some social/religious overtones and you have yourself the perfect straight-to-DVD (or streaming) thriller to wile away a rainy Sunday evening.
However, and while the film certainly works on that level well enough, the film is really about the true danger of absolute belief. Whether that's a belief in religion, a certain political ethos, an uneducated or fearful belief on certain social issues, a belief in untested psychology techniques or a belief in conspiracy and rumour. Any abandonment of common sense or your own gut feeling of what's right, basically.
With 24hr news, internet rumours, the rise of the fascist right, the promises of the loony left, religion, bigots, war, social media and you name it, trying to keep your head while all about are losing theirs is getting harder and harder. The greatest trick this movie pulls is lacing just enough throughout its pulpy narrative that, with the right eyes and mind you can see and rejoice in what it says about humanity, society and mass hysteria.
Again, on the surface, you could simply take from the film "weren't all those people crazy for believing in Satanists" or maybe "wow, isn't it scary how all those people across the country were convinced of these Satanic practices" but I think the film actually hits on a universal truth about belief and makes little nods to all sorts of widely held beliefs that could do with some serious reconsidering.
So, while I was left fascinated, thrilled, excited and aching for debate when the credits rolled, because of the ideas explored in the film, even early on I was impressed with the look, feel, script and performances.
I am not a huge Ethan Hawke fan and haven't seen much of his work but his performance in this really impressed me. It was as revelatory as Kevin Bacon's excellently judged performance last year in Cop Car (albeit completely different) and made me want to go back and see Hawke performances I may have missed. He is just the right side of shambling and spooked the whole way through and watching him was a delight.
David Thewlis is wonderful as well and at moments it looked like the two actors were engaging in a hilarious "scruff-off" where they were trying to out do each other in the messy, crumpled stakes. I could watch Thewlis and Hawke trundle about in a car discussing "the nature of influence and suggestion where memory is concerned" for hours.
Emma Watson is slowly becoming a good actress. I remember seeing some early work of Keira Knightley and not being entirely sure but then watching her in the film adaptation of Pride & Prejudice and finally seeing her emerge as a strong performer. The same can be said for Regression and Emma Watson. While the ghost of Harry Potter will loom large for a while (especially with the presence of Thewlis, who was in the Prisoner of Azkaban - which now I come to think of it and digress was also directed by a Spaniard), Watson held her own here and played a very complex character without ever revealing all the layers till the right moments. I was suitably impressed.
Rounding out the cast is a wonderful cross section of brilliant character actors, including the marvelous Dale Dickey as the confused, scared and possibly complicit Rose Gray. Always a boost to any cast, Dale is able to convey complexity and character even in people who seem to not have much of either.
I had the pleasure of talking to Dale Dickey about Regression and her career recently.
Lastly, then, the look, feel and direction of the film. Director and writer, Alejandro Amenábar and his director of photography Daniel Aranyó not only have the clearest of focus on how to let the story unravel, what to reveal and when and how to keep the audience guessing. There are the odd sequences which drag a little or feel repetitive but that's a minor quibble really. The film is shrouded in a grey dampness which is sometimes sinister and shadowy and sometimes, quite correctly, mundane and dull. The whole film gave me that feeling you have about 30 minutes after coming in from a torrential downpour of rain. Not quite cold and wet anymore but not quite dry either. While that may sound like a negative, I loved it and felt that the look and style of the film supported the substance perfectly.
Not to use, at this point in film fandom, an old cliche but a 70s/80s movie vibe like The Changeling or The Omen was definitely the feel I got from it.
The director and cinematographer clearly had fun with the devil worshiping/memory/dream sequences also. It's in these moments of the film where they really cut loose and grimy-horror-film the whole thing up to the max. They keep it just ludicrous but also hideous enough to keep you nailed to the edge of your seat with a mixture of excitement and revulsion.
I can't recommend Regression enough, it was a really pleasant and perfect surprise that hit me in all the right places. In a perfect world it would've had a big release but there were no one dimensional characters in tights hitting each other with magic weapons, so sadly it didn't.