Gothika is one of those films that can be interpreted in a variety of contexts, and that’s precisely what I love about it. It’s not just another horror story with a lovely heroine, but a movie that dances between mystery and the occult, while adding a thematic depth not often seen in the genre.
Note: While I will try to avoid spoilers, I will be referring to scenes and issues raised in the film, which could—well, would, of course—affect a first viewer’s experience. Be warned!
The mystery: how does a brilliant, accomplished psychologist end up accused of murder and incarcerated in her workplace? Is a persistent apparition of a young girl a murder victim, a suicide, or an externalized clue to a past trauma? Did a loving wife suddenly kill her husband, and if so, why? Who is “Not Alone”? And of course, whom can you trust? On this level the movie succeeded for me, providing clues without giving away the solution too soon, and making psychological suspense not only interesting but relevant.
As an occult horror film Gothika uses the familiar—ghosts, possession, a tragic past, questioning reality—with effective ease. From the opening session between Dr. Miranda Grey (Halle Berry) and patient/fellow inmate Chloe (Penelope Cruz), questions of possession and repressed memory are raised, to follow the viewer throughout the film. When Miranda switches from staff member to patient, does she share more in common with Chloe than their residence? I don’t want to say more about this, because I don’t want to give away too much.
I do want to speak about the themes which permeated the movie, while also fitting neatly into the plot itself. These things didn’t seem contrived, but more a natural extension of the story into its surroundings. The primary theme seems to be spiritual and psychological rebirth and growth. I’m uncertain if this is the work of the writer, Sebastian Gutierrez, or Mathieu Kassovitz, the director. Perhaps it was a collaborative effort.
Without giving a away plot details, I can only list the moments which left this impression. Here goes:
Water imagery. Miranda is immersed in water three times, one of which provides a salvation of sorts. Her pivotal first encounter with the mysterious young girl occurs in the driving rain, immediately after crossing a river. And water is an essential part of a metaphor occurring early in the story, showing how our only access to reality is through our perception.
Numbers. Miranda swims a personal best of 55 laps early in the film, something I think represents an internal, spiritual “personal best” which she reaches for in the story. She is incarcerated in room 33, a number loved by occultists and conspiracy theorists, and the age at which Jesus is said to have died and been resurrected. The number 22, which appears when a major part of the mystery is solved, is also a favorite of occultists, and associated in numerology with the ultimate self-actualized personality type. That 55=33+22 solidified my belief that Gothika’s symbolism is not accidental.
Colors. Miranda Grey is frequently clothed in gray, and almost nothing is just “black and white” in this movie. Obvious, but nice. I’m uncertain if other colors, in particular red, are deliberate or not.
The anima sola. This is an archetypal image of a female (hence anima, not animus), imprisoned and surrounded by flames. It represents a soul in the Catholic purgatory, being purified (tormented) until it can go on to heaven. Who this is changes according to the context of the story. The anima sola is nicely counterpointed by the “Not Alone” phrase, repeated throughout the story, and also changing according to context. The same character(s) are both isolated and burning, and not alone.
Clues from the script. Adding to visual imagery are lines like, “Let me circumcise that for you,” “Let’s go wash away your sins,” and “I see everything, so I’m God,” which helps reinforce the spiritual undertone of the theme. A comment about opening doors near the end further reinforces the idea of spiritual development.
I don’t really have much more to say, except that I thoroughly enjoyed Gothika.
Oh, one last postscript: watching this, I couldn’t help thinking of the astonishing Jacob’s Ladder (1990), which also blurs the edges between reality, psyche, and nightmare. Viewers who liked Gothika might enjoy this film. They might also enjoy The Crimson Rivers, also directed by Kassovitz, which is an excellent psychological suspense thriller.
Postscript. I forgot to mention that the opening with Miranda and Chloe’s session takes place on a Friday night. There’s no point I can think of in the plot that makes this worth specifying, so it is probably another key to Gothika’s symbolism. Good Friday is the traditional date of Christ’s death, and Miranda awakens three days later; Friday also has superstitiously ominous connotations on the 13th, though I didn’t catch a date in the film.
Originally posted on alexfiles.com, my online home from 1999–2018.