Here’s a familiar movie story: An ordinary woman uncovers a plot against her — but is it real or all in her head? The story of the classic George Cukor film Gaslight (as well as the play that inspired it) has been adapted again and again, with varying degrees of originality, from Rosemary’s Baby to Unsane. The premise plays on our cultural understanding of the micro- to macro-aggressive ways in which women have been historically manipulated by men into accepting a lesser or terrible fate. And it’s often oh-so-satisfying whenever the woman finally realizes she can trust her own eyes to see what they’re seeing. (However, there are some equally satisfying thrillers that urge you to sympathize with a female protagonist who is revealed to be wrong.)
Rob W. King’s Distorted, a thriller criss-crossing domestic drama with CIA psy-ops, ventures into the paranoid-woman trope with a story about Lauren (Christina Ricci), who copes with her bipolar disorder with meds until she starts seeing apparently imaginary people coming for her. To make her feel safe, her husband, Russell (Brendan Fletcher), moves her into a “smart” apartment, surrounded by security and the safety of neighbors. But she immediately feels something is off: Little cameras scan every inch of the common space, and in a They Live twist, Lauren sees words flashing across her TV screen. Russell, of course, cannot see these things — the other key to these stories is the suspense of figuring out whether the husband is complicit in the manipulation of the wife. King succeeds on that front. But this story, despite the potential of tech-surveillance tension in a smart apartment, still comes off stale.
King illustrates Lauren’s confusion with the stagnant visual technique of strobed montages, the flashing of random disturbing images before our eyes. If you, like me, are sensitive to strobe effects, this is not the movie for you. I had the luxury of watching this film at home, so I could slow down the play and analyze the images, but I was disappointed that there didn’t seem to be a cohesive nature to them or a logic behind their existence. One would hope that the images would have a specific emotional resonance for Lauren, helping us piece together her story and come to know her better. Here, they don’t seem to do that.
It’s fascinating to me that John Cusack signed on to play a deep state–obsessed hacker, Vernon Sarsfield, who gets little screen time. Vernon is constantly aware of Lauren’s whereabouts and worries, enough to show up at the same coffee shop where she is and ping her all the CIA research on mind control she might ever need. If there’s one thing I can say for this movie, it’s that the cast is delivering, even if the story they’re in cannot. And though Lauren does get her moment to take a stand and trust herself, I wasn’t cheering — I really don’t know her.