Director Parker Finn has turned his 2020 short film, “Laura Hasn’t Slept” into a full-fledged feature film titled, “Smile.” The film follows a stressed and overworked psychiatrist named Rose Cotter. After seeing her patient, Carl, she is advised to go home and get some rest by her boss, Dr. Morgan Desai. But another patient, by the name of Laura, is wheeled in at the same time, thereby causing her to stay back. Sadly, that ends up being a mistake, as Laura turns out to be someone suffering from a kind of curse where the victim is endlessly tormented by an “evil being” until they (trigger warning) kill themselves. When Rose returns home, she begins to have sightings of the dead Laura, and she keeps zoning off during conversations. After apparently falsely accusing Carl of aggressive behavior, Morgan sends Rose on an indefinite leave so that she can find her bearings. However, she goes into a downward spiral, which forces her to confront her long-buried past.
Major Spoilers Ahead
After several spine-chilling hauntings and one dead cat that she apparently gifts to her sister’s son on his birthday, Rose decides to track down the wife (Victoria) of the deceased professor Gabriel Muñoz, as he’s the one who bludgeoned himself to death in front of Laura. Victoria describes how he was constantly on edge before he passed away. She then takes Rose to a room filled with horrific pictures of various creatures smiling or peeling their skin off drawn by him. She says that Gabriel used to say that those things were trying to get inside him. She does point out that Gabriel never got over the death of his brother. But what catches Rose’s attention is that Gabriel became like that after a woman killed herself in front of him during an annual conference he used to go to. So, she goes to Joel’s to get some information on this woman. It turns out that a smiling man killed himself in front of her at a gas station, thereby proving that it’s a curse that gets passed from one person to another.
There’s pretty much no subtext in “Smile,” and that’s not a negative criticism. Finn makes it very clear that the “curse” that is being passed around is a metaphor for the trauma of death by suicide. Going by Rose and Gabriel’s pasts, yes, there is a history of depression caused by the death of a loved one. And that somehow “attracts” this virus of sorts to latch onto them, causing them to spiral down until they pass away. But whatever this entity is, it keeps increasing its headcount by banking on the fact that if a person sees another human being (or a cat, for that matter) die horrifically in front of their eyes, they are going to become ripe for picking as well. Additionally, the whole smiling aspect of it all and the fact that it can only be perceived by the curse’s next victim also speak to the invisible nature of trauma and depression. To them, everyone seems to be happy and fine. To everyone else, the victim seems manic and dangerous to themselves and those around them. That doesn’t necessarily mean everyone’s doing fine and just the victim is having a breakdown. It means everyone is only putting on a plastic smile and ignoring the obvious, i.e., all of us aren’t doing fine in this economy.
After realizing that the smiling curse is infectious, Rose bails on Joel and apparently leaves him in the dark. Since this happens in every horror movie—the trope where the protagonist doesn’t confide in the side character even though we know they need help, thereby worsening the situation—it seems like Parker Finn is repurposing that cliche. But he subverts it by showing that Joel has, in fact, figured out that the deaths that Rose asked him to look into are all linked. And there are not just 3–4 of them. There are 20 such incidents, out of which 19 are deaths by suicide and one by murder. The person who committed the murder is Robert Talley, and he is alive and spending the rest of his life in jail. So, he clearly broke the cycle? No. He committed the murder in front of a person, and the process resumed. Rose and Joel do meet with Talley, and he reiterates that information that either the curse is going to get to the current victim and force them to kill themselves in front of someone so that it gets transferred. Or the current victim has to commit murder in front of a witness so that they can pass on the curse to that witness without getting killed.
With these series of revelations, Parker Finn announces his influences, which may include “It Follows,” “Hereditary,” “Ringu,” “Candyman,” “Midsommar,” “The Eye,” “Ju-On: The Grudge,” “Sinister,” “One Missed Call,” and even “Final Destination” to a certain extent. Just in case you haven’t seen any of these films (what are you even doing with your life? ), Finn puts a ticking time bomb atop the already creepy presence of the smiling monsters who wear a familiar face so that it’s easy to get close to its victim. As Rose learns that she has somewhere between 4 and 7 days to either murder someone or become consumed by the curse, a sense of tension and hurry is added to Rose’s journey. And since time is running out, she has to choose between morality and survival, as only one will allow her to live on. This twist is understandably cruel because Rose is undeniably an innocent person. But Finn forces her and us to ask the question: Is innocence permanent when one’s life is on the line? Are we supposed to convince ourselves that we can commit one crime for the sake of self-preservation? Or should we stick to our principles and add ourselves to the ever-growing statistic of deaths by suicide? In doing so, “Smile” doesn’t feel derivative and stands tall alongside its peers.
Now, let’s talk about Rose’s traumatic past. She evidently watched her mother die in front of her eyes and is haunted by the guilt that she didn’t do anything to save her. Holly wasn’t there when all this happened, and hence, she was able to move on and build her life. Rose believes that by becoming a psychiatrist, she’s preventing others from becoming like her mother. At the same time, she is clearly self-diagnosing and avoiding therapy herself. This leads to her estrangement from her sister as well as her fiancé, Trevor. Seeing how she’s isolated, the smiling curse takes the shape of Rose’s therapist, Dr. Madeline, and lets her know that her time has come. So, Rose goes to the psychiatric hospital with the intention of killing Carl. But she comes to her senses in time and locks herself up in her old house in the woods. There she confronts the monster, who has taken the shape of her mother now, and she tells it that her mother was wrong for dying on her and that she herself was wrong for not calling for help. But at the end of the day, Rose was just ten years old, and she didn’t deserve that kind of upbringing. And as an adult, she has come to the realization that her mother’s death isn’t her fault, and she is ready to let go of that guilt.
The monster clearly realizes that it is about to lose its grip on Rose, so it takes its final form (the initial design is very reminiscent of the lady in the basement from “Barbarian“) and goes after her. Before doing so, the monster does say that it’s doing this whole process of tormenting traumatized people because that’s its source of energy. Rose tries to one-up the monster by forcing herself to think that it’s all an illusion and that she can defeat it by thinking that she can. We see her burn it. We see her get into her car and drive away to Joel’s. We see her confess that she was wrong for breaking up with Joel in the past, even though he’s the only one who understands her. But it all turns out to be a ruse crafted by the monster. And as Rose goes for the door, thinking that she’s escaping Joel’s apartment, she realizes that she’s still in her old house. When she sees that the real Joel has tracked her down to her old house, she understands that the monster is stalling until it can get to its next victim. Rose tries to stop the monster again. However, it peels off its skin, revealing the smiling rows of teeth that make its face (amazing work by the VFX and SFX artists), and enters Rose. By the time Joel breaks into the house, it’s all too late, as Rose sets herself on fire in front of him, thereby continuing the cycle of smiling deaths.
The final act of “Smile” underscores a lot of its ongoing themes. Rose’s isolation shows how “loved ones” with a shallow understanding of mental health can contribute to a person’s downfall by being selfish and leaving the victim to fend for themselves. Rose’s actions show how difficult it can be for someone to get help for them because it isn’t easy to sympathize with a person who is antagonizing you. Rose’s sister personifies the trend of “living life to the fullest” while constantly complaining about how “difficult” their lives are and constantly trivializing mental health issues. That’s clearly not a productive way to live, and it’ll catch up to her and people like Holly one day or another. Rose’s mother is a cautionary tale for every parent who is irresponsible towards their child, thereby traumatizing them for the rest of their lives. It sends the message that if you have problems of your own, maybe you shouldn’t have a kid (or kids). And finally, Rose’s entire arc shows that guilt, death, and suicidal tendencies are a killer cocktail, and they’ll consume you if you don’t treat them on time. Yes, Rose’s death does proclaim that such a condition is incurable and that it only spreads. But that’s only because “Smile” is a horror movie, and it won’t be horrifying if it isn’t nihilistic in nature. However, in real life, even if things are dire, we need to strive to fight these very real demons and never let them win.
In conclusion, “Smile” is definitely one of the best horror movies of the year and one of the best movies of the year. Parker Finn takes a pretty common concept about the deadly after-effects of trauma and, with the help of composer Cristobal Tapia de Veer, cinematographer Charlie Sarroff, editor Elliot Greenberg, production designer Lester Cohen, and his talented cast, he presents it in a sleek, nightmare-inducing, and mainstream package. Sosie Bacon deserves all the awards for her performance. The special effects and visual effects teams should be applauded for their nearly invisible work. And given how “Smile” has managed to gross over $200 million on a $17 million budget, studios should get Finn to make more movies because he clearly knows how to do it. Should he make a sequel to this? I don’t exactly know. The very nature of the premise makes the curse a never-ending process. Hence, it can be interesting to see how different sets of victims deal with it. It’s possible that Paramount is already pushing Finn to work on a sequel. However, I’d rather see him tackle different corners of horror or other genres entirely instead of retreading what he has already done incredibly successfully.
“Smile” is a 2022 Drama Thriller film directed by Parker Finn.
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