Written and directed by Parker Finn
I'm not sure, exactly, when I started using the term "art horror" to describe the phenomenon of all the little Kubricks who'd discovered that the easiest way to make superficially-intellectual psychological dramas was to dress them up in horror movie drag; whenever it was, it was some time before "elevated horror" became the standard description and, as someone who was ahead of the curve and saw where this was heading, I'm resentful that I'm the one who has to change his terminology. But that brings us to Smile, and Smile sees this movement having achieved an extravagantly decadent form. It almost feels like what would happen if someone took an elevated horror screenplay, already from the shallower end of that particular pool (and possibly not fully finished), and placed it in the hands of a pure junk horror filmmaker who wasn't interested in themes or psychology and saw nothing besides an opportunity to do one jump scare and gore shock after another. Alternatively, somebody wrote a parody of elevated horror and handed it to a director who didn't notice or care because of the aforementioned emphasis on jump scares & gore shocks. This speculation runs into the impervious brick wall that its writer and director are the same person, Parker Finn. And yes, I am having difficulty not being annoyed by his name, which is like the autofill option on the birth certificate for white babies who get abandoned at fire stations, but it's not his fault he was on the receiving end of some of the old generational trauma.
That's what we have here, obviously, and the parody screenplay one could fancifully imagine Smile started out as could've been named It's About Trauma!, for there has never been a movie more literal-minded in its pursuit of being about extremely generic trauma. There has possibly never been a motion picture where the word, "trauma," appears with such frequency in the dialogue. I must, I'm sure, sound very down on Smile, which maybe isn't such good writing on my end, for I'm not down on it at all: I'm perfectly satisfied to assume that Finn isn't a faux-deep idiot, and merely bandwagoned on the popular thing in order to ply the aspects of his craft he actually does care about.
But trauma first: it's a movie where the monster is, very concretely, the act of being traumatized itself, and it weakens its victim with post-traumatic stress—that is, with typical haunted house antics—until such time as it's sufficiently reduced their defenses, so it can compel them to repeat the cycle, committing suicide in a colorful manner in front of its next victim, who's accordingly traumatized in turn. I'm not close to the first to note the obvious prefab influences here. First you see the _____ then you die—it almost calls this out in dialogue, in a cute moment where the script explains that "seven days" is just the maximum, and most victims don't make it that long—and, of course, this is mixed in with a significant dash of an it-that-follows, in that the monster likes to pretend to be people, and though it's invisible to everyone else, it appears before its victims, smiling an inhuman smile. I have not, however, seen anyone else compare it to another thing its particular approach to horror reminded me of—probably because it would sound insulting—which is the first phase of The Happening, when it was still intriguing and wasn't yet about evil plants and flutey whispers, only about how many different ways M. Night Shyamalan could come up with for people to improvise suicide.
We meet this monster alongside Dr. Rose Cotter (Sosie Bacon), who's devoted her life to tirelessly working endless shifts at an emergency psychiatric ward, in no small part because of what we saw in the film's prologue, where a young Rose (Meghan Brown Pratt) had been witness to her mother's suicide. Today's a day like any other: she doesn't clock out on time and is on hand to meet a new patient, Laura (Caitlin Stasey), who would like to loudly insist how NOT INSANE she is even as she describes the shape-shifting presence that's been stalking her ever since one of her professors at school killed himself in front of her a week ago, and, incidentally, it's in the room now. Rose calls for help and by the time she looks back Laura's face has gone blank except for an evil, mirthless smile, and she's carving another smiley face in her neck with a piece of broken coffee mug. This makes Rose the next victim, and she experiences increasing mental dissolution under the monster's assault, to the point that her boyfriend (Jessie T. Usher), her boss (Kal Penn), her own therapist (Robin Weigert), and her sister (Gillian Zinser, whose soccer mom caricature comes closer in just three scenes than every Roger Corman movie about tits and death to proving correct the arch-feminist criticism that horror may love female heroines but hates women) have no choice but to conclude that she's lost her marbles. Ultimately, the only source of support she has left is her ex (Kyle Gallner), I suppose in case somebody wanted to draw even more parallels between this film and The Ring, and as Rose attempts to solve her mystery—if there's any path to survival at all—she is invited to plumb the further depths of her own defining trauma.
That's so blockheadedly literal it's nearly clever, but I'm almost sure that it would've been better to have been more conceptual about it—more along the lines of "transmissible psychosis"—because any time it actually leans on its metaphor/"metaphor," Smile is invariably worse. It's advisable to leave aside any obnoxious nitpicks one could make ("so the plan is to drive a victim so crazy they have a high likelihood of being chemically and/or physically restrained?" or "what if they survive their suicide attempt because they're already in a hospital?" or "what if the witness is a trained medical professional and isn't actually that traumatized?"), but Smile commits more fundamental gaffes, belying any attempt to appear like it's a movie about its stated themes, or even human beings, and isn't just exploiting this shit to get at what it's really after.
Particularly, it does not care about Rose being a psychiatrist: it's mainly just an easy kickstart, by having her interview the previous victim and provide Finn an excuse to set roughly one-fifth of his movie inside a pink-and-baby-blue psych ward that perverts this "soothing" decor into something alienating and ominous. Rose surely doesn't pursue her mystery as a scientist—Rose groks that she's the victim of a supernatural force so instantaneously it seems impossible that her movie actually runs 115 minutes*—but you would almost necessarily assume a psychiatrist would at least have the professional toolkit to try to communicate the horror flick facts behind what looks to everyone else like such an astonishingly quick breakdown that it could probably only be explained otherwise by a stroke or brain infection. (But "mental illness can be genetic! I looked it up!" says her angry boyfriend, a grown man in A.D. 2022, in one of the dumbest placeholder dialogue exchanges in horror history.)
Nevertheless, Rose only ever attempts to convince people that she's NOT INSANE, NO REALLY by raving ever more loudly and incoherently at them, until eventually they go away. Even the one who doesn't (her ex who is, conveniently, a cop) is only convinced by accident, because his curioisity is sufficiently piqued by her opaque, impenetrable rantings to do some independent research, whereupon he realizes—as anyone would have, had Rose explained herself slightly more calmly—that her chain-letter curse really is an objective, documented fact. This almost rises to "actually thematic," and if the movie were interested, maybe it would be more than accidental that the keenest insight it ever has is that people don't like to engage with mental illness, and thus either ignore it or channel it through institutions where cold professionals (such as Rose herself) toss bland platitudes at it.
If Smile is almost-a-satire of people constantly talking about trauma, it's especially almost-a-satire of using therapeutic language to diagnose trauma, insofar as therapy is going to be insultingly useless, as our therapist heroine discovers firsthand. It does at least retain a measure of witheringly bleak comedy, sometimes with clearer intent—the motif of smiley face imagery, or that hard cut from Rose weeping and thrashing in her car to Rose chowing down on a burger (by some margin the most genuinely human beat in the whole film)—and sometimes more ambiguously, so that if you're primed to interpret, e.g., Rose's nephew's dumb expression as he watches his aunt spaz out as a joke, then it's a good joke, though for all I know Finn meant for me to take it seriously. Well, eclipsing every other problem the film has, Rose owns a cat, though you can't convince me anybody involved in making this movie ever has, or has even met anyone who has.
So that's what the movie is not about, or, at least, what it's about badly—it's why it's 115 minutes, with attempts at Meaningful Conversations that never play—though a movie that didn't believe in its emotional payoff presumably wouldn't have gone for the finale that this one does, where it pursues its most overt rip-off of all, alone amongst the stolen parts here in actually irritating me, because not enough people have actually seen The Hole for there to be any general awareness that this is a rip-off. (For the record I like this finale very much—at least some of its imagery and ideas are its own—though certainly The Hole does it better.)
I have described (somewhat exhaustively) a bad movie, but I said that's not the case, because while it's undeniable that Finn worships Ari Aster in ways that are slightly pathetic (whatever your personal answer is to the question "how many upside-down drone shots of the landscape are too many?", I guarantee this movie has more), Smile uses all the pretentious claptrap it's inherited from its subgenre as an excuse to basically just be a bitchin' haunted house dark ride instead. Imagine the severe, geometric style that is the stereotype of the elevated horror, A24 aesthetic, but imagine it without filler: the proportions of "tedious drama about unhappy people" and "horror movie about blood and stuff" are flipped completely around; the good parts come early, they come often, and the actual point is the construction of an exacting, dreadful atmosphere, with every space, even the hospital, being underlit and gloomy, presented in a preponderance of ninety-degree angles and confrontational axial shots with a whole lot of spoooooky shallow focus, such as can burst out over and over into pure panicky horror—and it does this no less frequently than every ten minutes, but possibly more like every five.
So, jump scares (and, as mentioned, a fair amount of creative gore). They aren't even really unexpected in and of themselves, but in their quantity they have a quality all their own; you just can't keep your guard up the whole time and if you're generous enough, you can meet Smile where it lives and just accept that the value of this movie, for it needs no other, is to be found in its skill at designing frightful scenes alongside its hucksterish willingness to constantly keep jumping out from behind the curtains with loud noises to fling dead animals at you. In this regard, it benefits immensely from a score from Cristobal Tapia de Veer that is, I hesitate to say, almost too good for it, that could claim descent from Christopher Young's quasi-music from Sinister (and, goodness, you could go way back, to the Barrons' electronic tonalities from Forbidden Planet), and this is even less "music" than those scores were, and more a collection of anxiety-inducing sounds thudding and whining across the breadth of the film; at its most harmonious, it resembles a broken music box. More usually, it sounds like possessed machinery in a haunted factory. It benefits, too, from Sosie Bacon, who's turning in a great performance: not, to be clear, the kind of "great performance" that elevates (blargh) other such overly try-hard efforts, that finds something psychologically specific in boilerplate trauma/grief/etc.; and therefore I hope Bacon does not believe she played an actual character, because she didn't. But if she needed to believe that to do her job, it did work, because she serves incredibly well as a shrieking, shuddering stand-in for an audience getting its nerves stomped on by every formal element of a film that exists for no other reason besides stomping on nerves. As much as her immediate degeneration into "total wreck" puts paid to any human drama here, or even any sensible plotting, that performance and Finn's willingness to sit with her overarticulated twitching is perfect for the very narrow goal of empathetically pulling you into something like the same terrified fugue.
Your mileage may vary: this is about as mechanical as genre gets, and I could see being annoyed by the way, Bizarro World-style, this modern horror film disguises an extremely schlocky, extremely joyous ethos in serious movie clothes. But they don't make 'em like this so much anymore, and rarely have they been made so well (they might've been written this poorly, but so it goes). Yet if a couple dozen good jolts sounds like a good time to you, I suppose you might exit with a smile.
*Coincidentally, the same exact runtime as The Ring.