Regression (2015)

First published by Sight & Sound, December 2015

Review: Films trafficking in religion and evil must eventually decide where they stand on their own Satanic mechanics. While, e.g., Scott Derrickson’s The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005), adapted very loosely from the true story of German teenager Anneliese Michel, flirted at first with rationalism and reality, in the end it fully embraced demonism. Contrast Hans-Christian Schmid’s Requiem (2006), based on the same story, but attributing its teen protagonist’s horrific death to her own illness and an overzealous church rather than to any supernatural power. Schmid’s film accords with the conclusions of the Commission of the German Bishops’ Conference, but Derrickson’s ‘imaginative’ retelling of this story was to have greater box office appeal. After all, blind leaps of faith neatly mirror the sort of suspended disbelief required by genre, and, famously, the devil always gets the best tunes.

This is what makes Regression, the latest film from Alejandro Amenábar (Thesis, Open Your Eyes, The Others, The Sea Inside, Agora), rather audacious. For though it certainly plays in the main(stream) as a supernatural thriller in which police detective Bruce Kenner (Ethan Hawke) joins forces with psychiatrist Professor Kenneth Raines (David Thewlis) to investigate the Satanic ritual abuse of a teenaged Angela Gray (Emma Watson), it never forgets the ‘real events’ (Eighties/early Nineties Satanic panic) by which it claims in opening text to have been inspired, and so propels its agnostic protagonist (our double) along parallel paths of superstitious pandemonium and more grounded actuality, all in a perpetually raining Minnesotan noir-town (fictional Hoyer, in fact shot in Ontario).

Here the foremost tool in Amenábar’s filmmaking workshed is the frequent use of POV shots to mark what we are seeing as restricted to an individual’s perception. First there is the blurry perspective of Angela’s father John (David Dencik) as he enters Hoyer’s police station and confesses to his daughter’s accusations of sexual abuse, despite his claiming not to remember these events. This perspective then shifts to various members of Angela’s family as, under the influence of Kenneth’s regression hypnotherapy, they (and we with them) experience distorted visions of hooded cabals. Eventually Regression will share its perspective with Bruce himself who, listening obsessively to recordings of all these testimonies, starts picturing devilish crime scenes in empty buildings and dreaming vividly of cultish incursions. Bruce is one of those ‘intuitive’ detectives so beloved of genre cinema – the dogged maverick who pursues his hunches to the end – yet through him Amenábar illustrates how easily a narrative’s gaps can be filled with prejudice and fancy, allowing us to see only what, deep down, we want to see – and believe.

So Regression seduces with sensationalist fantasy, before delivering a less palatable, more banal truth that may well, as Derrickson understood all too well, prove the harder sell. For Amenábar has crafted a peculiar meta-thriller in which story-telling, complicit credulity and even image-making itself occupy a Gray area – and he has also, by ultimately allowing reason to triumph over both religious hysteria and crackpot pseudo-science, placed a line in the sand of America’s culture wars.

Synopsis: Hoyer, Minnesota, 1990. Confronted with written accusations of sexual abuse from his daughter Angela, born-again ex-alcoholic widower John Gray confesses, though claiming no memory of the event. Under psychiatrist Kenneth Raines’s regression hypnotherapy, John recalls photographing someone else abusing Angela. Angela, who has sought refuge with Reverend Beaumont, tells Detective Bruce Kenner stories of group abuse over the last two years, and of Satanic rituals and human sacrifice in her father’s workshed. Identified as an abuser, Bruce’s police partner George is arrested. Bruce and Kenneth fly to Pittsburgh to interview Angela’s estranged brother Roy. Roy denies Angela’s story, but under hypnosis recalls hooded figures in makeup. Listening to these recorded testimonies over and over, surrounding himself in occult literature, and warned by Angela of the dangers posed by the Satanic clan, Bruce has the Gray property searched for bodies. Meanwhile, he receives mysterious silent phone calls, and is himself visited in his sleep by a cabal of hooded malefactors. Arriving home one night, he is attacked by a hooded George, who, released for want of evidence, is out for revenge. George reveals that Angela, his one-time lover, has always hated her family, and Bruce realises she has invented her accusations, her stories aided by a mediated climate of ‘Satan panic’, a complicit church, and Kenneth’s bogus hypnotherapy. John, racked with guilt over his dead wife and ‘sodomite’ son, decides to serve time for acts of abuse he never committed, hoping this will reconcile him with Angela.

© Anton Bitel