Most viewers familiar with the work of writer-director Alejandro Amenábar will likely first recall 2001's "The Others
," that elegant, eerie, Nicole Kidman-led period ghost story with its poignant gut-punch of an ending. Returning fifteen years later to the genre in which he experienced his largest commercial success to date, Amenábar unavoidably faces the pressure of living up to his supernatural forebear. Such expectations are unfair and unfounded by the very different, distinct experience "Regression" offers. Quietly dumped by U.S. distributor The Weinstein Company into a contractually obligated 100 theaters without advertising or fanfare, the film received unenthusiastic critical notices in February 2016 and slipped out of multiplexes before most people probably realized it existed. Those anticipating a jolt per minute filled with threadbare horror tropes will be left wanting, but what is offered instead is altogether superiora thoughtful glimpse into the toxicity of belief and the infestations of hysteria and hearsay existing in a modern late-20th-century world. Suffice it to say, "Regression" is worthy of closer consideration.
In Hoyer, Minnesota, 1990, local police detective Bruce Kenner (Ethan Hawke) is called upon to investigate the accusations of 17-year-old Angela Gray (Emma Watson), who claims her father, John (David Dencik), sexually molested her as part of a Satanic ritual. While John claims to have no recollection of committing such a heinous act, he signs his fate by assuring Kenner his daughter wouldn't lie about something so serious. When fellow cop George Nesbitt (Aaron Ashmore) is also named as playing a part in Angela's rape, a finger-pointing firestorm boils to the surface. Joining forces with Kenneth Raines (David Thewlis), a professor looking to use an experimental regression therapy meant to pull traumatic memories out of one's subconscious, Kenner is overwhelmed by a desire to get to the truth. As his concern for Angela deepens, an encroaching paranoia invades the minds of those closest to the incendiary case.
Deriving inspiration from a certain famed Arthur Miller play and reframing it for the late-1980s/early-'90s era of rampant, media-invoked Satanic Panic fears, "Regression" provocatively blankets its elegiac mystery in a malignant pall of diabolical foreboding. Forthright but unforced at it dips its toes into malevolent, black-cloaked imagery, the film shrewdly toys with subjectivity and one's own corruptible imagination without painting its horrors as clear-cut fact. This psychological ambiguity enriches the material further without sensationalizing it. Key third-act revelations are, to be sure, not exactly surprising, nor should they be. Amenábar's purposes are not to trick his audience outright, but to verify how easily one's human compulsions to believe can infect their train of reason.
In very nearly every role he takes, Ethan Hawke (2013's "The Purge
") wholly and believably embodies it. Such is the case with his adept work as Bruce Kenner, a man whose logic-driven pride in his work is put to the test as he confronts a grim unknown so unimaginable he comes to envision it quite clearly. Emma Watson (2013's "The Bling Ring
") gets the picture's trickiest part as the frightened, vulnerable Angela Gray, urged to reveal the dark secrets plaguing her even as she continues to fear for her life. For a teenaged girl harboring plenty of internal baggage, there is more to Angela than meets the eye. Watson rivetingly commits to the character, her effectiveness intensifying as further motives and intricacies are divulged. In a memorable supporting turn, Dale Dickey (2014's "The Possession of Michael King
") brings a raw, mournful sense of betrayal to Angela's grandmother Rose, claiming outrage over the smear placed upon her troubled family.
Rich in overcast atmosphere (the rural Ontario locations standing in for Minnesota come to indelible life courtesy of cinematographer Daniel Aranyó), "Regression" works as equivocally involving procedural and as a portentous tale of horrors both real and enigmatic. The film's pacing, methodic and deliberate, works a spell of dread on the viewer, while the story's ultimate trajectory brings stirring layers to the prickly natures of faith, empathy and mob mentality. As all the cards Alejandro Amenábar is dealing are revealed, he includes more exposition than necessary to overstate his point. To be sure, less would have been more. The film concludes on a strong note, however, one which locates a haunting finality to its vexatious, open-ended subject matter. "Regression" is mature, ruminative and utterly disquieting.