In Alejandro Amenábar’s last horror film, 2001’s The Others, he created a moody, effective film in which the final moments illuminated the events of the entire film, almost begging an immediate rewatch. After The Sea Inside and Agora, Amenábar’s return to horror is the cliched Regression, which attempts a similar third act revelation, yet everything that came before it is so blandly generic and confused, it’s hard at that point to really care.
Taking place in 1990s Minnesota during an unwarranted fear of satanic acts, Regression follows detective Bruce Kenner (Ethan Hawke), who is investigating the rape of teenage girl Angela (Emma Watson) by her own father John (David Dencik). Angela is understandably very quiet about this awful event, while her father admits to the rape, even though he doesn’t remember it, stating simply that his daughter doesn’t lie.
In order to get deeper into the minds of John and Angela, psychologist Kenneth Raines (David Thewlis) attempts regression therapy to bring the events to light. The further Kenneth gets into what happened, Bruce goes from skeptic to terrified of what seems like a growing satanic cult in his small Minnesota town.
As a horror film, Regression is graphic to a fault, not learning that sometimes it’s better to imply rather than to show. When Bruce listens to a horrific retelling of the activities of the cult, we are shown every filthy detail, from drugging to baby sacrifice. When Regression has more tact, the horror is laughable, with white-faced Exorcist-looking witches and evil, red-eyed cats. When Regression is in thriller/mystery mode, it seems old fashioned, as if in the end William Powell’s The Thin Man has gathered all his clues up and is explaining the story of the mysterious cult.
Regression’s strength does play in its surprise, which does illuminate the story at hand and does put some key players in a completely new light, playing with the ideas of memory and plausibility. But it’s hard to tell what Regression wants to be from one moment to the next. One minute it’s a disgusting horror exercise, the next it’s about how susceptible we are to suggestion, without any of the ideas truly meshing into a main idea.
At the core of this susceptibility is John and his entire family, including John’s mother Rose (Dale Dickey) and his son Roy (Devon Bostick). Because of this, they’re given an extra layer of depth that makes them more compelling. They are at the center of the mystery we are trying to unravel, with each choice being criticized. With the film’s two main characters, Bruce and Kenneth, we don’t quite get that. In fact, the most detail we get with these two is how they utilize their jobs to get to the root of what is going on. Bruce builds the case and finds the clues, whereas Kenneth believes the answers lie inside the head of John’s family. Beyond their jobs, there’s really nothing else between these two to grasp onto as we wait to get the film’s big reveal.
Regression feels like Amenábar confused by his own ideas, much like Bruce is confused by the different ways the case he’s following is going. Regression has plenty of threads it wants to go down, and because of it never quite has any strength in any of them. Despite some slightly intricate character work, Regression is unfortunately muddled and is never quite able to figure out exactly what it wants to be about.