Sometimes, despite how tough things are, all you can do is just put on a smile and go about your day.
That’s especially true for Dr. Rose Cotter, who works with the most insane patients in the Emergency Psychiatric Unit. It’s a tough job, sometimes, dealing with all the trauma and mental illness in there.
But nothing compares to the day when Rose met a patient named Laura.
Laura was concerned about something supernatural tormenting her—something that only she could see. And each time it appeared to her, the supposed demon she described would have a threatening, crazy smile on its face. A moment later, Laura panicked, saying the demon was in the room with them—before cutting her own throat with a disturbing smile of her own across her face.
Since then, Rose has been experiencing some issues of her own—like visions of the dead patient and general feelings of unease. Based on her 80-hour work week and the recent trauma, she suspects it’s probably PTSD.
But as time goes on, Rose isn’t so sure that her condition is medical in nature. Because ever since Laura’s suicide, she’s been having hallucinations.
They’re all of people, and they’re all smiling threateningly at her.
And each time it happens, they get a little more aggressive.
I’ll be honest: There’s very little in this film that’s positive. The majority of it is a downward narrative spiral that suggests the damage of mental illness is inevitable and unescapable.
If I were to insert a bit of theme-sifting psychoanalysis, it seems the purpose of the demonic smiling throughout the film is a message about ignoring or “smiling through” the trauma each victim has experienced rather than dealing with it outright. That’s not a particularly good message.
On a more granular level, however, there were some other small nuggets of positivity. When Rose’s sister and brother-in-law demean hospital work, Rose’s fiancé, Trevor, defends her. He explains that Rose does it because she loves the work.
Despite no one else wanting to help or believe her, Rose’s ex, Joel, agrees to assist her, even after her poor treatment of him. At one point, Rose confronts past trauma from her childhood, and she realizes she shouldn’t continue to bear the guilt for it.
The crux of the film revolves around a demonic entity that torments its victims before causing them to commit suicide in front of another person. The demon then attaches itself to that witness via the trauma they experienced through witnessing the violent suicide. Various instances of hauntings and hallucinations occur as a result of the demon’s attacks.
This story deals with the idea that demonic influences are real, but it doesn’t do so from a particularly Christian point of view. That said, Scripture clearly teaches us that the demonic realm and its potential influence upon humans is real, and that an ongoing spiritual battle rages around us. (See Ephesians 6:10-20.) Thankfully, the book of Revelation also teaches us how that battle ultimately ends. And the New Testament as a whole invites us into a relationship with Jesus as the pathway to eternal life and spiritual victory over any dark, demonic forces.
Rose is briefly seen in her bra and later in the shower, though nothing is shown. Rose occasionally kisses her fiancé, and she lives with him. A woman is seen in a shirt and underwear.
The film’s imagery includes a lot of gruesome, gory, bloody deaths and dead people: a patient cuts her cheek and throat with a shard of vase, and we’re forced to sit through the whole, slow ordeal. We watch a man cut his throat with garden shears (though he faces the other way, we still see a large spray of blood). A man is said to have bludgeoned himself to death by hitting his own face with a hammer, and we see a picture of the grisly result. Other victims of suicide are shown after the fact, too: someone killed by a gunshot wound, another run over by a train and a couple people are lit on fire, and we see the skin melting off one of them. Another woman is shown to have committed suicide via an overdose on pills.
We see a couple characters pull the skin off of their faces, revealing muscle underneath. A person gets stabbed over and over onscreen. Someone’s wrist is snapped, uncovering bone. Rose falls onto a glass coffee table, and we see her bloodied arms covered in shards of glass as a result. A child is given a dead cat as a present. Rose accidentally cuts her thumb.
[Spoiler Warning] At one point, the demon reveals itself, and it pulls open a person’s mouth to a horrific size (as if the person’s jaw was made of putty) in order to crawl inside. In a creepy jump scare, a woman approaches Rose’s car. When she reaches the door, her head hangs upside down as if her neck alone suddenly turned into rubber. We also learn that you can escape the curse if you gruesomely murder someone else and another person witnesses the event (passing the curse onto that witness), and we meet one person who chose that dismal path.
Some of the violence we witness is directly connected to the movie’s dozen or so jump scares.
The f-word is used about 50 times, and the s-word is used 10 times. “D–n” and “h—” are also heard. God’s name is misused 12 times, once paired with “d–n.” Jesus’ name is abused four times.
We hear a reference to drug abuse. Rose drinks a few glasses of wine throughout the film. Rose tries to get a prescription medication. Someone’s room is cluttered by wine, cigarettes and prescription pills.
An insane man repeats that nothing matters, and everyone dies. Another patient is said to have swallowed her own hair. A couple wonders why anyone would become a doctor if they weren’t doing it to become rich. A woman heavily drools out of her mouth.
Typically, a smile tells us good things. Sometimes, it means we’re welcome in someone’s presence. Other times, it might mean we’re liked, attractive or funny. But in Smile, it may just mean that you’re the next trauma-filled meal for a malevolent entity.
Smile acts like a mix of The Ring and It Follows. The demon in this flick jumps to its next victim by having its previous victim commit suicide in front of them. And because the entity feasts upon trauma, it haunts its victims for around a week to really get them to stew in their suffering—like marinating meat in a slow cooker.
This marinade, however, isn’t your standard garlic ginger or honey sriracha. No, it’s pure torment and agony. The demon frequently jump scares its victims and gives them horrific hallucinations before causing them to commit suicide in the most gruesome of fashions—few of which are hidden from the view of the moviegoer. This treatment causes our protagonist to utter not a few swears along the way herself.
As a horror movie, Smile knows how to scare. But its underlying narrative unleashes a nasty, nihilistic message upon viewers, too. Namely, that the destructive effects of trauma are inevitable and unavoidable, that hope and deliverance are but a mirage.
And that’s not something to smile about.
Though he was born in Kansas, Kennedy Unthank studied journalism at the University of Missouri. He knew he wanted to write for a living when he won a contest for “best fantasy story” while in the 4th grade. What he didn’t know at the time, however, was that he was the only person to submit a story. Regardless, the seed was planted. Kennedy collects and plays board games in his free time, and he loves to talk about biblical apologetics and hermeneutics. His favorite movie is La La Land.