[The following review contains MAJOR SPOILERS; YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!]
Smile is a resoundingly efficient exercise in building mood and tension. Director Parker Finn’s visual style is absolutely spectacular, making excellent use of empty space and claustrophobic framing. Every pan and tilt and excruciatingly slow push-in is deliberate and methodical, contributing to the hypnotically suspenseful rhythm of the narrative. Even the coverage is brilliantly composed, eschewing “dirty” overs in favor of tight singles, with the camera positioned uncomfortably close to the characters’ faces.
And yet… what purpose does this immaculate filmmaking actually serve?
Smile dispenses with any pretense of hiding its influences; its plot borrows heavily from such horror classics as Ringu, Final Destination, and Sinister. Unfortunately, the movie that it most closely resembles—warts and all—is Drag Me to Hell; both Finn and Sam Raimi make the fatal mistake of forcing their sympathetic protagonists to suffer an unreasonable degree of torment—thus alienating the viewer. It’s not as though I object to nihilism and pessimism on principle; indeed, many of my favorite stories—including The Wages of Fear, No Country for Old Men, The Great Silence, Brazil, and The Bad Sleep Well—feature relentlessly depressing conclusions. But there exists some inarticulable X factor that allows the above examples to earn their “downer endings."
And Smile—which constructs its central conflict around the extremely relevant themes of trauma and mental illness only to reveal that its heroine’s grim fate was always predetermined, as inevitable and inescapable as death itself—quite simply lacks that elusive ingredient.