-A vastly underrated horror/thriller that deserves more than to be buried at the bottom of Netflix, and the newest Nicholas Sparks soap opera disguised as a feature film.
When I first saw the poster for Regression, a thriller directed by Alejandro Amenabar of The Others and The Sea Inside fame, I thought it was maybe his break into acclaimed American film-making, backed by the sturdy presence of the always reliable Ethan Hawke. After production hell and months of delay in the release, it was finally buried under the rug in February, a very short limited release run only to be forgotten about by the public. After it had been critically panned and moved from Oscar-month consideration, most people hadn’t even heard of this movie. The only reason I even bothered renting it was for the actors and to see why it was sitting at 16% on Rotten Tomatoes, a wildly low judgement for the director and the two leads of Hawke and Emma Watson.
I am completely floored by the largely negative reaction to this film. In fact, it’s not only considerably better than advertised with the reviews, but it also had genuine moments of scary substance that had my nerves on edge quite a bit during the run time. Admittedly, an awfully structured third act almost takes the film into the red after a nose dive in quality, but I would wholly recommend giving this film a chance to win you over.
We start with a local townsman John Gray (David Dencik) admitting to sexually assaulting his teenage daughter Angela (Emma Watson). Brought into investigate the case, along with murmurings of a satanic cult in the area, is Detective Bruce Kenner (Ethan Hawke) who is having trouble getting good answers out of John about the incident, but develops a good relationship with Angela. In order to get John to open up about his memories of the incident, the police force hires a renowned psychologist (David Thewlis) to practice regression therapy, using hypnosis to try to uncover repressed memories. When other people in the police force become implicated and Kenner dives headfirst into the town’s worry about a local satanic cult, everyone around, including the very strange Gray family, begins to grow more and more paranoid.
The police work into the cult is extremely scary and effectively eerie, while it’s the rare film that truly offers us a chance to figure out the clues ahead of time. We are able to try to solve the mystery instead of the film relying on cliches or rushed story-telling. In that way, it’s old fashioned and is fine taking its time to make a scene worthwhile. It’s directed with some flair and works on its own two legs without needing to be apologized for because some mistakes are made.
And there are mistakes. The final act is riddled with cliches, and the true psychotic paranoia that the film goes for upon its closing is underused at best. After the film ends, you may feel tricked, that the third act’s silly choices in story have robbed you of your overall enjoyment, but I don’t think that’s a fair assessment. Again, Ethan Hawke works great in this film and Emma Watson may want to keep this off of her resume, but she’s fine in this. Overall, this had the snowball effect where it started poorly on reviews because of stories of incomplete production, but overall, it still works.
Director: Alejandro Amenabar (The Others, The Sea Inside, Open Your Eyes)
Starring: Ethan Hawke, Emma Watson, David Thewlis, David Dencik, and Dale Dickey
RT Score: 16%
I think it’s necessary to start any Nicholas Sparks review by detailing whether you’re inherently biased against his work or not. While never being Oscar worthy films, I think there’s a level of enjoyment to be had by watching any Nicholas Sparks adaptation post-finding the winning formula in The Notebook. They all have a checklist of tropes that they fill (stay tuned to the end of the review), but watching two gorgeous actors fall in love against a beautiful North Carolina coast backdrop is not really the worst way to spend two hours as long as the two actors have chemistry. The Notebook (Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams) is clearly the best, but some of the pulpy teen romance flicks to follow have worked as well. Dear John (Channing Tatum and Amanda Seyfried) isn’t too bad; Zac Efron works in The Lucky One, The Last Song is somewhat cute, etc, all culminating with what is the second best Sparks adaptation last year with The Longest Ride.
Sadly, The Choice falls more in line with Safe Haven, The Best of Me, and A Walk to Remember than the aforementioned cute films for a few reasons. The performances are clearly less satisfying, and that’s directly related to the fact that Benjamin Walker and Teresa Palmer are not the same caliber of actor as the ones brought up in the previous paragraph. The checklist still remains, but it was a disappointingly boring effort on this one, as opposed to the more self-aware, lovable type romance film that we all enjoy, even if it gets critically panned.
The story follows a young veterinarian Travis (Benjamin Walker) as he lives his fairly secluded life, dating on and off with a local girl (Alexandra Daddario) and working at his father’s (Tom Wilkinson) animal hospital.
His life is changed when from-the-North medical student Gabby (Teresa Palmer) moves in next door to him. He’s instantly drawn to her snippy moods and love for dogs as well, so they become friends. When her boyfriend (Tom Welling), a doctor, leaves for a month for work, they start spending a ton of time together, falling in love. Her ‘choice’ comes quickly, deciding whether to stay with her current relationship, or pursue the new flame with Travis, and his ‘choice’ comes much later under tragic circumstances.
The leads can’t really carry this movie, and not surprisingly, the best performances come from Wilkinson and Daddario, the more veteran actors from this cast. Walker is serviceable, occasionally having moments letting his ‘southern charm’ come through, but he doesn’t play the mournful side of the Sparks role very well. Teresa Palmer really struggles here after doing good work in both Cut Bank and Knight of Cups over the past couple years. She also was the only good part of the disastrous Warm Bodies from 2013. She’s not played up to be sexy or charming, but rather a very intelligent, homely type for Travis, and her beauty becomes too understated. If we are to watch a Sparks adaptation, couldn’t we at least make it fun to look at?
The checklist for the Sparks film is all there:
porch swings, cancer, car crashes, a coma, North Carolina, beaches, beach flirting, motorcycling, boating, note-giving/letter-giving, old wise mentor, etc.
The problem is that it doesn’t have the same style to match the very similar substance that we’ve all come to at least tolerate.
The Choice (2016)
Starring: Benjamin Walker, Teresa Palmer, Tom Wilkinson, Tom Welling, and Alexandra Daddario
Director: Ross Katz (Adult Beginners, Taking Chance)
RT Score: 11%