Agnes (Ashley Judd) is bored with her life--and she's sworn off men. She's a bit fearful of her abusive ex-husband Jerry (Harry Connick Jr.) who just got paroled and works at an all-girl bar with her lesbian friend R.C. (Lynn Collins). When R.C. finds a handsome stranger Peter Evans (Michael Shannon) wandering through town she tries setting him up with lonely Agnes. She doesn’t really click with him but feels sorry for him and lets him spend the night in her rundown motel room. Then the bugs begin to bite. According to Peter they're not just bedbugs but aphids—and Peter thinks the bugs are part of a government conspiracy. To off-set the bug bites fend off the persistent helicopters flying around outside and avoid the mysterious Dr. Sweet (Brian F. O'Byrne) Peter and Agnes cover their hotel room in tin foil hole up from the rest of the world—and spiral down into a world of madness. It's a strange role for Judd. She's not glamorous at all but successfully pushes the edge as a white-trash waitress looking for something more out of life. Judd transforms believably from a strong hard woman to a fragile fearful female on the edge of sanity. She gets naked with a stranger she kisses her best girlfriend--and then she starts believing bugs are biting into her skin. Shannon is alternately a handsome handyman type who is also very uneasy and creepy to be around. "I make people uncomfortable " is his grand understatement. At one moment he is someone who Judd willingly decides to sleep with and in the next moment he's a psychotic wild-eyed madman that she should be running away from. Either way he is compelling. Connick Jr. however plays his bully ex-con role in a characteristic one-dimensional one-note depiction that isn't as interesting nor as threatening as Peter. Director William Friedkin who gave us Exorcist and The French Connection expertly helms this relatively narrow-focused screenplay by playwright Tracy Letts. Since it is an adaptation of a play the actors are sometimes limited in their actions and the setting is almost too claustrophobic. As the camera swoops down overhead to an isolated motel in the middle of the desert from unseen helicopters the drab hotel room transforms into a sparkling foil-covered eerie set with a blue tint courtesy of the talented production designer Franco Carbone (of the Hostel movies fame). Tightly winding up this conspiracy thriller--in which theories about Tim McVeigh the Unibomber and the Bilderberg Group abound—Friedkin allows the paranoia to wash over you in wave after agonizing wave. And nothing is more unnerving than Peter pulling what he thinks is an insect egg out of his tooth. Shiver.
Halle Berry stars as Dr. Miranda Grey a well liked and respected psychotherapist happily married to the beloved head of the psychiatric ward at an old damp women's penitentiary (Charles S. Dutton). One stormy night taking a detour on her drive home she's involved in a terrifying encounter with a young girl that causes her car to go off the road and the impact of the crash knocks Miranda out cold. She wakes up on the wrong side of a Plexiglas cell door in the very prison where she and her husband work (apparently this the only prison in the state) to find her husband's been killed and she is the prime suspect in his gruesome murder. With no memory of the past few days she is confined alongside her former patients like the Satan-paranoid Chloe (Penelope Cruz) and scrutinized by her once-flirtatious coworker Dr. Graham (Robert Downey Jr.). Miranda insists she didn't kill her husband but quickly starts to doubt her own sanity when a violent force from the not-so-sweet hereafter turns her into a Spirit World conduit. Meanwhile the good doctor wants desperately to prove her sane and innocent even as unseen forces bizarre sightings and bad lines get in the way.
You can practically see Berry's slight shoulders hunching under the weight of this oppressive wet flapdoodle of a psycho-mystic mystery that has The Ring written all over it. Berry gets the baffled/terrified/uncontrollable prisoner thing right says "Shit!" a lot and gets plenty of screen time to flesh out her character (no not THAT kind of flesh; she's drenched in the shower and submerged in the swimming pool but Berry never once pulls a Swordfish). Still cute after years of hard living Downey Jr. as Miranda's skeptical doctor ably smarms his way in and out of scenes in which he says little but raises much doubt about his true motivations--just one of several intriguing concepts abandoned in the face of a progressively trite storyline and escalating hoo-haw. Where it all just goes wrong--so so wrong--is in Cruz's greasy raving crackbird who shrieks lines like "He opened me like a flower of paaaain!" while trying to convince Miranda the Devil rapes her nightly in her cell.
Auteur Mathieu Kassovitz admirably sets the stage for a spooky thriller in the massive turn-of-the-century St. Vincent-de-Paul Prison an abandoned maximum-security facility near Montreal that serves as his women's prison. The setting is the only part of the film that holds any interest--it almost develops a life of its own which is more than can be said of the characters. Though Kassovitz resorts to Horror 101 (flickering lights suddenly appearing figures things that go bump in the night) these elements inspire dread and trigger a jolt regardless. So if the setting is suitably hair-raising the first few scenes effectively suck you in and the acting is passable what's the problem? Screenwriter Sebastian Gutierrez's script that's what. After an auspicious start the film drowns in nonsense and plot holes the size of which rival Michael Jackson's legal troubles until finally sinking like a stone with a truly pedestrian and ridiculous finale that unravels any interesting question raised in the two hours prior followed by a real howler of a denouement. "I don't believe in ghosts but they believe in me " says Miranda. Sorry we don't believe a bit of Gothika.