Dir: Parker Finn. Starring: Sosie Bacon, Jessie T Usher, Kyle Gallner, Caitlin Stasey, Kal Penn, Rob Morgan. 18, 115 minutes.
You may have heard of the “Kubrick stare”. It’s a look into camera – head titled down, eyes glistening beneath lowered brows. Stanley Kubrick was always fond of how quickly it could signal man’s descent into madness, and used it to great effect in A Clockwork Orange, The Shining, and Full Metal Jacket. Slap a fish-eating grin on there and you’ve got Smile, the latest example of how a single, effective image isn’t always enough to sustain a feature-length film.
Parker Finn’s 2020 short Laura Hasn’t Slept cleverly exploited the porous divide between reality and dream. A woman (Caitlin Stasey) confesses to her therapist that she’s been keeping herself awake out of fear of the grinning man who visits her in her dreams. In Smile, that visage has been transformed into a literal, supernatural curse – part The Ring, part It Follows. Dr Rose Cotter (Sosie Bacon) is confronted with a patient (a returning Stasey) who was the only witness to her professor’s suicide. She claims that she’s now haunted by some unnamed entity that “wears people’s faces like masks” and has “the worst smile I’ve ever seen in my life”.
When tragedy strikes, Rose initially dismisses these visions as a symptom of acute post-trauma psychosis. Then she sees the smile. Again and again, on different faces. It’s an undeniably frightening sight, which Finn captures in steady, unflinching close-ups – either haloed in light or shimmering in the dark. There are plenty of sudden, and occasionally inventive, frights. The film also sees Rose pour out multiple tiny glasses of wine, seemingly only so she can drop them moments later with a crash.
We know this story well: is Rose losing her mind or is there really something nefarious at work? Finn’s script does make a commendable attempt to call out the stigma around mental illness, where the fullness of a person’s soul is dismissed after a single diagnosis. A cop attempts to close the case on Rose’s patient with a simple: “She was a headcase, yeah?” As we learn, Rose’s own mother died by suicide when she was a child. The trauma she carries with her, and the question of what hereditary illnesses she may have inherited, are held against her by almost everyone in her life: her boss (Kal Penn), her sister (Gillian Zinzer), her fiance Trevor (Jessie T Usher). The only exception is an old ex, cop Joel (Kyle Gallner), who’s mainly there to stand around, confused but empathetic, while Rose delivers various revelations to him.
Rose googles. She combs through old case files. She visits people connected to previous victims. It’s the same procedural process we’ve seen in a hundred other horror films, and the mystery here is self-evident enough that there’s never really anything of note for Rose to discover. Considering every horror film these days seems to be “about trauma”, Smile suffers from never evolving past the basics – that trauma begets trauma and, if left unchecked and unexamined, can consume a person’s life. Can a horror film really build itself around a statement that obvious? It doesn’t feel like adequate justification for something that, really, is just about how good Kubrick was at making movies.