Before sitting down to watch Cell 213, I thought the description held intriguing potential God and the Devil have been fighting for souls since mankind first laid foot on earth. Their battle continues in Cell 213 over cocky young attorney Michael Gray. It suggested something that seemed to sit halfway between The Devils Advocate (1997) and perhaps the scenes between George C. Scott and Brad Dourif in the latter half of The Exorcist III (1990).
Soon after Cell 213 starts, the battle for the lawyers soul aspect evaporates. In fact, it becomes hard to get a handle on what the film is about, as there seem to be a several competing plots going on at once. One of these is about lawyer Eric Balfour locked away in a cell and being haunted by sinister figures and illusions that are driving him to the point of madness and suicide here Cell 213 seems to be trying to be a ghost story or maybe something akin to Repulsion (1965) showing the subjective process of someone mentally cracking. There is also another story going on observing Eric Balfour and his struggle to fit in to the harsh world of a US maximum security prison. Here Stephen Kay does an okay job of portraying the prison environment and the codes that operate there. There is a third story about Deborah Valente and her investigation into the prison, where we get the impression we are watching a mundane thriller about her exposing the institutions corrupt secrets.
I felt increasingly frustrated by the films swaying between these various plotlines while refusing to give us any easy clues as to where it was going. In fact, given the prominence of these last two stories, you start to wonder if what you are watching is a horror film at all and not a mundane maximum security prison drama along the lines of something like Ghosts ... of the Civil Dead (1988) or Bronson (2008). It was these same narrative vaguries that plagued Stephen Kays Boogyeman, a film that left you entirely confused by the end of it as to what was going on. Equally, the attempts to portray Eric Balfours descent into madness with images of childrens dolls flushing up out of the toilet, appearances of a man with one eye falling out, visions of murders, piles of rags that start bleeding, Bible verses appearing on the walls and creeping up around Eric Balfours arms, the bed turning into burning ashes seem like overkill. We more than clearly get the idea that we are inside a mans fraying mental space but the constant profusion of horror effects, all of which come amplified via maximum surround stereo impact that is constantly physically impacting on our senses, seems to be building too much out of too little. Forgotten anywhere inside of this seems to be Eric Balfours redemption, which the film seems to be wanting to be about but only occasionally remembers to get back to. The quieter dramatic scene where Eric Balfours ex reveals what he was responsible for or his going to confess to the priest deliver far more clues about what is going on than Kays constant straining for horror effects.
[PLOT SPOILERS] Cell 213 eventually boils down to an overwrought allegory for the redemption of Eric Balfours soul. There is some muddled talk at the end where Deborah Valente realises that the prison and the cell is an allegorical place where God and The Devil fight for supremacy over someones soul. The titular cell number 213 is symbolically representative of a Bible verse. In the last scene, Deborah Valente asks Bruce Greenwood if he is God or The Devil and he simply walks away smiling enigmatically. This seems a lame and contrived allegory. Moreover, it is one that makes large stretches of the preceding film seem nonsensical. I am not at all sure how a scene where Eric Balfour ties Viv Leacock, the prisoner who has purchased him as his bitch, to a morgue table and fills him with embalming fluid under the directions of the ghostly man with the eye falling out are meant to fit into this at all. The end revelation also makes Deborah Valentes investigation into the prison and Bruce Greenwoods seemingly sinister behaviour into wilful misdirection. I was also unable to figure out how the revelation that Michael Rookers wife had left him but he keeps pretending that she is still there had anything to do with the rest of the film.
Cell 213 at least works well in the casting department. Eric Balfour is an actor who has been on ones radar for some time as a rising name who is well overdue a leading part. He holds up capably in the role of the lawyer, even if the part is not written with anything that requires a major stretch from him. Bruce Greenwood is the most veteran actor in the cast, although his insistence on playing the part with a certain sleaziness verges on one-dimensional, even campy. The one having an absolute field day is Michael Rooker. Ever since his signature role in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986), Rooker has specialised in roles such as this mean, tight-lipped and suggesting the type of ornery redneck that likes to get drunk and then go home and beat his wife up for sport. The role he has been given here is one that plays into exactly this type of casting and Rooker goes for broke with it.