ANALYSIS: “Nothing matters” – the problematic representation of mental ill-health in SMILE (2022)

Spoilers and Trigger Warning for Themes of Suicide

New horror movie Smile follows a psychiatrist haunted by a demon that drives its victims to take their own lives. But is the film’s representation of mental ill-health helpful, or hampered by confused – and maybe harmful – narrative choices?

Early on in Smile – the feature debut from writer / director Parker Finn – a man in a secure psychiatric unit is in a consultation room. He’s sat perfectly still, though is apparently experiencing a manic episode, fervently repeating to himself “She’s gonna die… I’m gonna die… we’re all gonna die… nothing matters”. His psychiatrist Rose (Sosie Bacon) sits beside him, calmly listening and trying to reassure him: this isn’t normal existential angst, but a debilitating spiral in which he’s trapped. Her manner is empathic, eschewing a pathological approach to mental health care. And, as we soon learn, she’s someone who lives for this kind of work, driven by a past trauma to try and reach people on the edge of slipping away, fuelled by guilt and a desire to atone for a decision she made long ago.

Rose, you see, is a good person. When her douche-bag brother-in-law later asks what’s the point of being a doctor if you can’t get filthy rich, Rose’s fiancé (Jesse T. Usher) is quick to point out that she’d do this work for free. She’s principled and value-based: so whilst numerous other characters use pejorative language – talking of “head-cases” and such – Rose sees the people behind the pain, and refuses to look away.

Having such a protagonist at the heart of the narrative might suggest that Smile is equally progressive, and it certainly would seem to aspire to this. For as the plot unfurls with Rose witnessing the brutal suicide of a patient who believes themselves haunted by a smiling entity, only for Rose herself to be similarly cursed, it’s evident director Finn is riffing on genre classics such as Ring (1998), It Follows (2014) and The Babadook (2014). That last film in particular feels especially important, as it becomes clear that Rose herself is experiencing the ongoing ripples from her own mother’s suicide when she was a child: an event which her sister (rightly) points out has come to define her.

In Jennifer Kent’s modern masterpiece Amelia (Essie Davis) has similarly repressed the trauma of the death of a loved one – in this case her husband, who died in a horrific auto-crash on the day their son was born – and the Babadook acts as a representation of her un-dealt-with grief, literally knocking at her door and asking to be let in. So too in Smile the entity approaches Rose, demanding entry into her body and mind. In both films the heroines ultimately resolve to confront the creatures that torment them, though the outcomes are very different.

As Rose unpicks the mystery of what is haunting her she uncovers a chain of suicides where people – possessed by this being – kill themselves graphically in front of others, and those who witness this then become cursed, doomed to repeat the cycle a few days later: trauma begetting trauma. At the film’s climax Rose realises that the only way out then is to isolate herself – ensuring there are no witnesses so she can starve this creature of what it needs, and maybe even defeat it.

The battleground for this confrontation Rose choses is her childhood home – the location of her mother’s suicide and the site of her original pain. And, in one moving and deftly executed flashback, it’s revealed that young Rose – only 10 and therefore not culpable – opted to not call the emergency services when her mother overdosed, instead choosing to let her die. It is this secret which has driven her throughout her life, keeping her away from others and confining her to a never-ending penance of trying to save those who are mentally unwell.

Whilst in her mother’s bedroom Rose converses with what appears to be her mum’s ghost, and unburdens herself of all the repressed things she has never been able to say. However this supernatural presence is not the benevolent spirit of her parent come to make peace, but another manifestation of the smiling demon which soon transforms and attacks her, now as a giant 8-foot tall monster which resembles something between her mother, the door-way man in It Follows and the final zombie from [Rec] (2007).

As the creature assaults Rose and it appears to be on the verge of possessing her she manages to slam an oil lamp into its leering face, declaring fiercely that her mind is her own. The ghoul bursts into flames and Rose literally escapes the burning wreckage of her past, it appearing to all intents and purposes to be a victorious middle-finger to the trauma which has kept her bound for so long.

But here’s the thing – and perhaps the problem which then wracks the ensuing coda: the mythology of this spirit has never been about unresolved trauma in general, but about it being paid forward by witnessing a cursed person’s suicide in particular. Yes, Rose was “cursed” psychologically – rather than supernaturally – by witnessing her mother’s suicide, but this demon specifically passes from person-to-person through the suicide of an infected person: it had nothing to do with Rose’s mum’s suicide, and only passed to her through the suicide of her patient. Or to put it another way: her mother’s suicide has no bearing on her vulnerability to this creature, and in this sense that prior loss is incidental, as is her catharsis.

Nevertheless, at this point the audience is punching the air: who doesn’t want to see someone conquer their demons? But you can just feel a final twist is in the mail, and sure enough it’s soon delivered.

Returning back to the city Rose goes to ex-partner Joel (Kyle Gallner), a cop who has been assisting her in trying the beat this thing. She seems to be well for the first time in days and just needs some place safe to crash. But even as he agrees to let her stay – the promise of a brighter tomorrow nearly in sight – his lips twist into that same sinister smile Rose has come to fear. She makes a break out of the apartment and realises she’s still at her mother’s cabin. And what’s worse the real Joel has just arrived, putting himself in harm’s way.

Suddenly registering what’s happening Rose runs back inside and is overcome by the mother-spirit, which peels off its skin to reveal rows of smiling teeth before squeezing into Rose’s mouth. Too late Joel kicks the door in, just in time to see a grinning Rose douse herself in gasoline and strike a match, her burning body reflected in his eyes as she seals her fate… and his.

It’s a helluva a kicker, and – on the surface – nothing more than a chillingly downbeat twist. But here’s the thing: as we’ve covered the film has pretensions to be about Rose overcoming her childhood trauma (even though narratively that’s irrelevant to the reasons why the demon has targeted her). We’ve even seen her literally face down the spectre of her own guilt, and get free. So this denouement is doubly nihilistic: not only in a bleak final image but in a way which is far more problematic – it appears in this world there is no escape from your past, Rose was doomed all along and the man in that consultation room at the beginning was right: we’re all going to die and nothing matters.

Now perhaps I’m projecting too much here, but fuck that. Suicidal ideation is a real thing which many people struggle with, and turning that into a punch line which appears to assert that such a struggle is hopeless is a pretty low blow. In this the muddiness of the narrative – the conflation of the suicide demon A-plot and the mother’s suicide subplot – proves to be the film’s undoing, inverting the empathic, pro-therapy message of the opening scenes into something which seems to admit defeat and invites the question: what’s the point in fighting?

Of course not all horror films need happy endings: many of the best don’t. But when the subject matter is this raw – and with such real-world consequences – it is not only problematic but also irresponsible and potentially harmful to present suicide as unavoidable.

Many – myself included – have dealt (or are dealing) with suicidal ideation, and we are a testimony to the value of staying. There’s a quiet courage in the refusal to believe the lie that our end is fated, and – contrary to the final twist of Smile – all of us can escape the prisons of our past to live as survivors. Of course it’s true that one day we will die, but not today, and not like this. Ultimately that man in the consultation room was wrong: somethings do matter. Like us. Like you.

© Tim Coleman

If you’ve been affected by the issues in this article and would like to talk to someone, you can call Samaritans here in the UK anytime day or night on 116 123.

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