Much like Taken, the 90s horror flick with Denzel Washington, Smile presents the most terrifying killer imaginable: A virulent, incorporeal monster, traveling invisibly on the breeze. It randomly lights on a victim, cursing them until they either end their life or murder someone else. In their final moments, the afflicted wears the wide, unconvincing smile of a murderous clown. With its homicide complete, the smiley demon leaps to the next poor soul, torturing them with sheer misery until the instant they must fake happiness.
That’s the tidy, startling simplicity behind Smile. Rose (Sosie Bacon) is a therapist in a psychiatric hospital. She’s a bright, engaging young woman who often sees patients at the end of their emotional tether. That’s certainly the case when Laura (Caitlin Stasey) is brought to her ward. Wild-eyed and haggard, Laura glares at Rose through haunted, hollow eyes and announces that an evil spirit is tormenting her. Laura’s a PhD student, and she’s self-aware of how all this must sound.
Suddenly, Laura becomes frighteningly serene. A Joker-esque smile slowly spreads from one cheek to the other. With her face now frozen in vacant cheerfulness, Laura cuts her own throat. She continues grinning until exsanguination sends her to the floor. A shellshocked Rose spends the day in a half-trance, trying to make sense of something incomprehensible. Her job exposes her to just about every deep shadow of human nature, but what the hell had she just witnessed?
Rose goes home and makes an effort to live her life. She and Trevor (Jesse T. Usher), her live-in boyfriend, have dinner with Holly (Gillian Zenser) and Greg (Nick Arapoglou), her sister and brother-in-law. Rose attempts to wear a brave face, but the entire meal brims with tension. It seems a murky, supernatural figure has been lurking around her all day. People randomly sport Laura’s unconvincing smile. For the first time, Rose suspects that Laura might’ve been telling the truth.
Of course, no one’s going to believe that. As soon as Rose speaks of a well-traveled poltergeist, people treat her as a woman unhinged. She’s been working double shifts, they say. She’s frazzled. And there’s that childhood trauma with her mother. I mean, it makes sense Rose is acting a little nutty. The naysayers even have her doubting herself. Her boss orders an immediate hiatus, and Rose tries to suppress her eyes and ears.
As you might guess, the smile monster only kicks it up a notch. He pushes Rose past the edge of insanity, so much that her friends and family now believe her capable of violence. Only her cynical ex (Kyle Gallner), who’s also a detective, offers any semblance of support.
The resulting movie is a skillful, meticulous mind-screw. Writer-director Parker Finn (adapting his own short film, Laura Hasn’t Slept) builds a genuinely unsettling atmosphere, in which we feel every bit of Rose’s billowing terror. I’m a tough audience when it comes to horror flicks, but this one even freaked the bejesus out of me.
A lot of credit also goes to Bacon, who fully commits to Rose’s physical and emotional disintegration. As the story progresses, Rose becomes pale, frail, and violent. She jitters and mumbles, frightening everyone around her. Her performance adds power to the film’s emotional punch, and it serves notice that Bacon can and will be a star in her own right.
Horror nerds might ding Smile as derivative of Taken, Blair Witch, The Ring, and other genre staples. Hell, I’m a scary movie novice and I made those connections. But, like always, I fall back on the wisdom of my high school humanities teacher: The only new completely new invention of the last 100 years has been artificial snow. Everything else has at least been tried before. That makes a movie like Smile more about the execution than the ingredients. On that front, this is a jarring, creepy little horror film, made with uncommon quality.
115 min. R. Paramount Plus.