John Gray (David Dencik) walks into his local police-station, a broken man who immediately confesses to the rape of his daughter, Angela (Emma Watson). He has no detailed memory of the event but Emma, who has fled to the local church, tearfully confirms the attack. Local cop Bruce Kenner (Ethan Hawke) wants to know more about the crime, especially as Gray’s claim of lack of memory may puncture his legal conviction otherwise.
When psychotherapist Kenneth Raines (David Thewlis) suggests hypnosis to help with the recollection and to see if Gray was the only one involved in abuse, Gray talks of others being there during the abuse, including a local police officer played by Aaron Ashmore. What was already a serious crime becomes something much more as the implications of the ‘regression’ pivot the investigation sideways. As Angela is persuaded to tell more about her own version of events, the whole town feels the effects as other faces are drawn in. With visions of cloaked figures and satanic abuse, Raines begins to wonder where he can turn and whose stories he can trust…
Regression is a film that initially feels like it might be packaged as a rather conventional thriller, a supernaturally-tinged ‘who-did-it’ and ‘why-did-it’ rolling out as a small-town police investigation begins to uncover that an initial case of child molestation might actually be just one example of wide-scale and sinister Satantic abuse in its Minnesota community circa 1990.
But as the story develops, winding its way through actual events and more horrible accusations, through those who add layer upon layer to the investigation’s sinister findings - the police, the church, the accused - some of the lines between facts, doctrine, faith and science begin to conflict. Just what is actually happening and how can Kenner prevent its spread?
Ethan Hawke has made a career out playing earnest characters who find themselves out of their depth, perpetually wearing an expression of confusion or bewilderment. The film’s dark palette of bleak colours once again serves him well. It’s clear why Watson took the role – it’s a much deeper and more complex role than Harry Potter’s Hermione and, like Daniel Radcliffe, it allows her to put some dramatic distance between herself and that all-ages role. She handles it well enough, though her position in the complex pattern of events is quite under-played through most of the running-time… it could do with being less slight and more weighty even if she’s the catalyst rather than the cornerstone of the story.
Thewlis’ doctor, absolute in his certainty of the power of his hypnotic regression techniques as a investigative tool, is a constant presence throughout, guiding the other investigators through the maze of possible evidence and it’s not long before the audience begins questioning some of his conclusions. The town’s priest, Lothaire Bluteau, sees things from a different perspective, but is equally adamant of the danger of Satan in their midst. Their respective convictions drag the investigation one way and another, sometimes contradicting, sometimes reinforcing.
Regression is a film that may well divide critics. Though it wears the same clothing as some formulaic supernatural outings that its production team have been known for (it is written and directed by Alejandro Amenábar who also penned the classic The Others and Abre Los Ojos – the inspiration for Vanilla Sky), it actually turns out to be less of an overt traditional thriller, more an observation on crimes deliberate and casual, actual human darkness and the need to find explanations to excuse or condemn it.
>It is filled of a slow-paced unravelling, often filled with melancholy glances, and moody scenes that have you waiting for another shoe to drop in traditional horror-movie fashion and a soundtrack that indicates distilled menace at every given opportunity. But as things progress those signs and portents take on other meanings.
Though it takes a while to arrive at its destination, it’s an interesting, atmospheric journey – vaguely inspired by, but clearly not beholden to, real incidents across the US and UK involving claims of ritual abuse and how they were approached. It sometimes falls foul of its own artistic flourishes – it’s intentions are fine but its structure as a traditional thriller/drama means this this is no Devil’s Knot - and ultimately it has less to say about its remit than it might admit. Equally, that choice of presntational style may alienate those who think they're settling in for a formulaic supernatural slasher flick and getting something quite different by film's end.
That aside the result a decent and unsettling character-study of a town in turmoil.