Halle Berry must've been crazy to make Gothika

The best line in Gothika -- the only good one, really -- asserts, "You can't trust someone who thinks you're crazy." It's an intriguing idea that suits a thriller about a prison psychiatrist (Halle Berry) who finds herself a patient in the same penitentiary where she worked.

But you can't trust a film that thinks you're feeble-minded, either, which is the case with Gothika. Director Mathieu Kassovitch brings flashy effects to a premise that has some potential, but lets it all go to waste through a script so silly it inspires more screams of laughter than fright.

On a dark and stormy night, Dr. Miranda Grey (Berry) goes about her routine, which includes a session with a patient named Chloe (Penelope Cruz) who claims to be having trysts with the devil. On her way home to her husband (Charles Dutton), who's also the warden, she takes a detour and encounters a mysterious young woman at the end of a bridge. The apparition seems to attack her, and there's a cut so abrupt it feels like the film broke -- one of Kassovitch's slick touches.

Miranda wakes up in an observation cell and learns that not only has she been catatonic for days, but she's being held for her husband's grisly murder. Her predicament has Kafka-esque possibilities. The nurses and orderlies who were her subordinates are now her jailers, and her own psychiatrist is a colleague (Robert Downey Jr.) who carried a torch for her -- and may carry a grudge. In the scenes where Chloe relishes Miranda's predicament, Cruz has cheesy, swaggering fun, like she's doing a seductive Antonio Banderas impression (although we're meant to take Chloe seriously).

Gothika doesn't dwell very much on the Snake Pit aspects of the story, because Miranda keeps seeing the ghostly girl, whose manifestations hint at a long-concealed murder. Kassovitch relishes the fluid, "ghost's-eye view" camera shots, which travel along Berry's neck in near-microscopic close-up or move through solid objects.

The director captures the sleek, dehumanizing prison locales in metallic shades of blue and gray. The therapy sessions are held in metal cages that resemble storage lockers, while the inmates' shower looks like the kind of huge room in which beef carcasses are washed. The shower scene reveals little but feminine necks, backs and shoulders, but creates a vivid impression of wet bodies in close proximity.

Nevertheless, the prison also has a gigantic, pristine swimming pool in the basement, which proves instrumental in one of Miranda's many escape attempts. She scarcely needs to use her inside knowledge against her minders, as she can grab keys, break out of her cell and out-run orderlies with such comical ease she may as well be held in a cardboard fort by a band of 5-year-olds. And it's difficult to believe that in the real world a psychiatrist -- even an accused murderess awaiting trial -- would be put in the general population of the prison where she recently worked.

Gothika has so many lapses in realism and so much Freudian symbolism (like a yawning sinkhole in the highway) that you wonder if the entire story is unreal. It doesn't help that Berry never makes a credible psychiatrist. She delivers academic jargon like she just finished memorizing it, not like she knows it second-nature, and despite Miranda's ordeals, she looks great for the entire film. She only has a couple of believable moments, such as a mournful "what might have been" scene with Downey.

Sebastian Gutierrez gives Gothika's script some twists, but no stunning revelation that demands a second viewing. Worse, it never establishes a baseline in reality that the rest of the film's weirdness, whether delusional or supernatural, can contrast against. Some cheap "boo!" moments work effectively, but the film's most horrifying quality is Limp Bizkit's overwrought cover of "Behind Blue Eyes" on the closing credits. When asked why she starred in Gothika, Berry should plead temporary insanity.



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