The Center full movie review - A rare and powerful glimpse at cult brainwashing
In his brilliant debut movie The Center, director and writer Charlie Griak has produced a film that manages to be both innovative and old-fashioned at the same time.
A psychological thriller, it is innovative in both its delivery and its subject matter. Its delivery is achieved through tight editing, spare but solid acting, and a fascinating musical score reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock. Jonathan Demme, perhaps best known for producing Silence of the Lambs, is executive producer of The Center, and his influence is definitely felt.
The score is almost a character unto itself. The music sets the tone for every moment of the plot without overshadowing it. Thanks to the seamless score, moody lighting and believable acting, the suspense is palpable, and the story entertains and flows smoothly without any of the modern Hollywood bloodshed or violence. In this respect, it is comparable to this year's The Gift, written and directed by Joel Edgerton, another low- budget, non-violent thriller that kept audiences glued to the edge of their seat. Both films are creative and masterful, and both leave the viewer thinking for many days afterward.
The Center's subject matter has to do with the cult indoctrination process, and it is an accurate and timely portrayal of how prevalent cults are in today's world. The traditional view holds that people who join cults are social deviants who shave their heads and preach the gospel of Hare Krishna in airports, or else they are mentally ill or drug addicts who become disciples of psychopaths like Charles Manson or Jim Jones.
Normal people like Griak's protagonist Ryan don't join cults, do they? How could any halfway-intelligent person be susceptible to brainwashing? The answer is: Yes they do. It happens all the time. If you are reading this, there is a strong chance that you or someone you know is or has been involved in a cult, perhaps without even being aware of it.
The Center takes the viewer on the journey of a young man's indoctrination into, and ultimate escape from, a cult. The chilling musical score plays as if horrific murders are about to take place. And, in fact, they do. But these are not murders of physical bodies. Instead, we watch the murder of human souls, a crime that is committed in the invisible world of the victim's mind.
Ryan, a gifted aspiring writer stuck in a mind-numbing job and unsupportive family environment, is the perfect prospect for cult recruitment. Spiritual predators like The Center's leader, Vincent, target people who are at a low point in their lives. When Ryan answers in the group's initial recruitment questionnaire that he feels disconnected all of the time, he unwittingly sets himself up to be victimized.
The film takes us through every step of Ryan's brainwashing process and his ultimate liberation. Ryan's indoctrination process is eerily authentic. A lonely man with no love life or social life, he is easily drawn in by a pretty girl handing out fliers. Then his bruised self- esteem is stoked when The Center's recruiters praise him for his intelligence, as they inform him that his responses to the questionnaire show him to be exceptionally intelligent and unique. Then the love-bombing begins, as he is constantly praised and hugged. During The Center's weekend training program, his senses are assaulted. His logic is questioned, he is deprived of sleep, and he is encouraged to express his emotions by yelling and screaming. He is blindfolded and forced to rely upon his peers for support, and then he is humiliated in front of the group for not being authentic, because he was withholding his most private and deeply-held thoughts and emotions. And always, always, always, he is expected to pay more and more money, on top of working for free for the group. One of the most effective themes in the movie is the sight of the cult members smoking cigarettes. They all smoke, and Ryan, a former non-smoker, eventually takes up smoking under encouragement from the group. This in itself shows the viewers something the cult's participants cannot see for themselves: the longer they stay in the group, the worse their health gets.
Ryan is encouraged to stay away from his family, because they don't approve of his involvement with The Center. In one memorable scene, Ryan has a phone conversation with his sister under close monitoring from a cult peer, who tells his sister that Ryan is thinking for himself for the first time in years. The reality is that Ryan has handed over his thought process to Vincent and is in worse shape mentally than before he joined the group.
The style of the movie and its subject matter call George Orwell's 1984 to mind. An excerpt from that book states, "You will be hollow. We will squeeze you empty and then we shall fill you with ourselves?Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing."
A turning point comes in the film when Ryan realizes that Vincent is a psychopathic thug, and Ryan breaks free. He is one of the lucky ones. One of his peers in the group, who feels helpless to leave, tells Ryan, "The funny thing about believing in something?you do a lot of things you don't believe in at all."
Mind control is real, and it is pervasive in our society. The mind exists in the brain and in hormones and enzymes that travel through our body and affect our senses. It is through the senses that we know about the world. When our senses are severely assaulted, we can neither think nor see ourselves. The Center lets us experience a rational man's nightmarish journey into hell and ultimately finding redemption. If you are looking for an intelligent, thought-provoking film, don't miss The Center.