Director: Parker Finn (USA). Year of Release: 2022
A tall thin shot of a woman who appears to be standing up. The camera turns 90° to show that she’s actually lying in bed. Boxes of pills are strewn on the side table, next to family photos. The bedroom door opens. A dark haired 10-year old girl looks on, shocked. Opening credits roll.
A hospital where a doctor is arguing with her boss. She’s been accepting patients again before checking that their insurance will pay. Rose, the doctor, has the same dark hair as the 10-year old girl. She’s a psychiatrist who is looking frazzled from lack of sleep and 80 hour weeks. She has a new patient – a PhD student who recently watched her doctoral supervisor batter himself to death with a hammer.
Asked what day and month it is, the student insists that she isn’t crazy. She then tells a story which appear to contradict her self-diagnosis. Just before her supervisor brutally killed himself, he gave a manic grin. Since then, she’s been pursued by visions – things which look like people but are not human. Suddenly, she has a sort of seizure. Rose turns her head for a minute to summon help, and hears a crash. The student takes a shard of pottery and slowly and bloodily cuts her throat.
With the help of an old flame, who’s a cop, Rose uncovers a history of brutal suicides. Each time, a witness was there to view the bloody deed. Each time, the witness killed themselves in a similarly violent fashion, a few days later. There is one case which bucks the trend. One witness is now in high-security jail for a grisly murder. Less than a week later, the main witness to the murder killed themselves, thus continuing the chain.
There are 2 logics working here simultaneously. On the one hand, the curse which is causing the repeated suicides is not a metaphor, nor something which only happens inside Rose’s fevered brain. People really are killing themselves. So far, so typical horror movie. For it to work, all that we need is for the film to follow its own logic. It does not have to correspond to how people really experience mental disorders.
At the same time, Rose really does have a form of PTSD, triggered by having witnessed her mother’s suicide as a kid, sleep deprivation and stress caused by working in a state hospital, plus some mitigating factors which we won’t mention to avoid plot spoilers. Her smug yuppie brother-in-law doesn’t understand why she doesn’t work in a private hospital and enjoy the extra money and less work. There’s quite a lot that her brother-in-law doesn’t understand.
This dichotomy has caused a controversy and claims that Smile does not treat mental illness with the sensitivity that it deserves. I understand the misgivings, but this is not what I think is happening. It is true that people in the film (usually cops) use demeaning language about the suicides or patients in the psychiatric hospital (sample language: “nutjobs”, “crazies”, “She sounds fucking crazy to me!”) But people using these terms are clearly unsympathetic.
By showing that Rose is suffering both from mental problems and a supernatural curse, Smile avoids two tendencies among horror films – seeing the problem to be purely in the mind of the victim, and blaming individuals, or seeing the problem as being purely supernatural and therefore with no social causes. In contrast, Smile is allowed to examine trauma, both literally and metaphorically, and to show the fronts that trauma victims put up in order to cope.
Which brings us to the central metaphor. Just before the suicides kill themselves, their faces contort into a rictus grin. Similar smiles appear on 2 other occasions in the film – in an advert of a happy family in front of a toy shop, and on the faces of parents at a children’s party which has just gone horribly wrong. Smiles here are used not to show happiness, but as a way used by people to try to fit in. Smiling is a fake gesture you use to try to belong.
I once went on a school trip to see Robert Lindsay as Hamlet. Someone – either Lindsay, or his director – had hit on the idea that Hamlet’s madness should be portrayed by him grinning all the fucking time. This proved to be a massive distraction, as well as being against the sense of the play in which Hamlet is but mad North-North West (if at all, but that’s another analysis). Like Hamlet, Rose is socially competent for most of the time, then suddenly just can’t cope. She rarely smiles.
If we look at Smile this way, I think that it treats mental illness with deep respect, without trying to trivialise it. Inasmuch as Rose is a threat to society, this is because of the inherited curse, which is no more (or less) real than little Red Riding Hood’s problems with a predatory wolf. And just to prevent us going too far down the rabbit hole of seeing the curse as being a metaphor for psychological problems, we also see Rose experiencing real psychological problems.
One last point. Close before the end, I had the feeling that Smile was going to disappoint. This is difficult to explain without plot spoilers, so let’s just say that until then, the film had shown the Ruth’s problems were both mental and metaphysical. Then there was a suggestion that if Ruth was able to overcome her trauma, she could make the curse go away. This would provide a happy ending which might satisfy some, while defying the logic of the film so far.
In the end, I think that Smile’s ending is the only one that makes any sense. It is grim, pessimistic, even if it does open up the possibility of a sequel, albeit with a slightly different cast. I’m normally fairly phobic of sequels, but I could give that one a go. Smile is that rarity – an intelligent horror film.