After fair-to-middling forays into prestige drama with The Sea Inside and the historical epic Agora, director Alejandro Amenábar wanders back into the world of horror with Regression, a moody psycho-thriller that’s also his least ambitious and most woolgathering work to date. The film utilizes a supposedly fact-based story to explore notions of science versus faith and reality versus the supernatural, a surplus of ideas that yields familiar and unsatisfying conclusions. Amenábar conjures substantial mood and atmosphere out of the bucolic, small-town Minnesota setting, but he doesn’t transcend the film’s simple ideas and potboiler pleasures, which themselves are tepid and lacking a certain sense of luridness seemingly befitting of the film’s retro obsession with satanic suspicion.
Regression takes place in 1990, when America’s widespread “satanic panic,” fueled by news broadcasts and daytime talk shows devoting large chunks of airtime to the supposed dangers of satanic cults, had nearly waned. This paranoia is essentially one of persuasion, and the power of suggestion. Such a notion is what Amenábar is searching for throughout the film, which takes the idea of embracing fear and filters it through a police procedural that follows hardnosed detective Bruce Kenner (Ethan Hawke) as he investigates the case of John Gray (David Dencik), who admits to raping his teenage daughter, Angela (Emma Watson), but can’t recollect the act itself.
When a psychologist, Kenneth Raines (David Thewlis), practices regression therapy on the father and daughter, he uncovers murky yet increasingly compelling evidence of Satan worshippers within the town and the human sacrifices they perform. And while the story works in requisite twists and turns on the way to uncovering the ultimate truth, the focus remains almost squarely on Bruce’s own shifting stance from devout skepticism to legitimate fear. A pragmatic mind falling prey to a perceived and most likely false set of scenarios is itself a sort of horror story, but it’s one that needs spicing up. Throughout, Amenábar seems to resist any true sense of the grotesque or the phantasmagoric, preferring to keep the film grounded in a sense of reality in order to make his supernatural suggestions seem more plausible.
Ultimately, the filmmaker’s intentions are tough to pin down, and Regression stands at a crossroads. The story effectively illustrates the way people give shape and form to anxiety and doubt, but the film itself lacks for a similar sense of shape and form, this in spite of some promising flourishes. Cinematographer Daniel Aranyo’s use of shallow focus proves an apt metaphor for delusion and confusion, and the occasional genre cliché—a caterwauling tomcat, a hooded devil worshipper—gets under the skin in spite of feeling too self-aware. But these strengths aren’t salves for the way the film floats around the periphery of various tones and styles, from slow-burn horror to Criminal Minds procedural drama, without embracing any of them. Regression spends a lot of time considering the fear of knowing, which may explain why Amenábar didn’t seem to know what kind of film he was making.