WARNING: Spoilers ahead for those who have not yet seen “Smile,” currently showing in theaters.
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“Would you like to delve into discussions about grief and trauma?”
Despite the disturbing content of violent deaths, eerie grins, and a grotesque monster, Paramount’s horror film “Smile” has left an impression on audiences. Sosie Bacon, the film’s star, is in high spirits as she talks to Variety post-release. The movie has proven to be a box office success, making a chillingly impressive $22 million in its domestic opening and experiencing only an 18% drop to $17.6 million in its second weekend — more than enough for a consecutive No. 1 position on the charts.
Bacon takes on the role of Dr. Rose Cotter, a psychiatrist who witnesses one of her patients die by suicide in her presence. This traumatic event sets off a chain reaction, subjecting Rose to a curse that manifests as hallucinations of people with unsettling smiles wherever she looks. As Rose delves into the history of these disturbing suicides, she discovers that her fate is entwined with the curse: she must either end her life in front of someone else, passing the curse to them, or choose to kill an innocent person and break free from the clutches of the nightmarish grief-monster.
In the end, Rose goes to her childhood home to confront her unresolved trauma regarding her mother’s death, in hopes of defeating the monster. There, she fights a giant, deformed version of her mom and sets the house on fire, before driving to her ex Joel’s house (Kyle Gallner) for safety. However, once she’s at Joel’s house and seemingly free from the demon, Rose realizes it’s yet another hallucination and she’s actually still in her childhood home. The grief monster rips off its skin, revealing its horrible, true form, then snaps open Rose’s mouth, crawling inside of her. Fully possessed by the demon, Rose douses herself in gasoline and sets herself on fire — just as the real Joel bursts inside her home and witnesses her death, becoming the next victim.
Pretty dark stuff! With Variety, Bacon explains how she interprets the profoundly unhappy ending, whether or not Rose killed her cat Mustache at her nephew’s birthday party and what her parents, Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick, think of the movie.
What do you believe has resonated with audiences regarding “Smile”?
I think there’s a surprise factor in the depth of the film, as some may have expected a more straightforward jump-scare experience. People seem to appreciate its authentic and grounded approach to filmmaking. I would caution individuals with significant maternal trauma to approach it carefully. Some have shared that they close their eyes during most of the movie, avoiding the details. I know certain individuals close to me who refuse to watch it altogether. On a broader societal level, we are grappling with a new fear — the idea that strangers can be potentially dangerous, a sentiment exacerbated by the era of COVID. This sense of virality and the fear of an unseen threat may resonate with viewers. Additionally, there’s a growing openness to discussing and confronting trauma in contemporary society, especially among younger generations who are more attuned to their emotions. Perhaps this increased emotional awareness contributes to the film’s connection with audiences.
How do you interpret the movie’s grim conclusion?
I felt it was crucial for the ending to be as dark as it was. A happy resolution would have felt unsatisfying given the film’s overall tone. The darkness of the narrative demanded a more nuanced conclusion. The silver lining lies in the fact that Rose chose not to harm someone else to break free from the curse. She didn’t have full control over the situation, emphasizing the often harsh reality that individuals can strive and give their best efforts, yet lack control over the eventual outcome. Rose’s attempt to confront and defeat the monstrous force showcased her strength, but it was heart-wrenching that she inadvertently passed the curse to the one person who genuinely cared for her. While undeniably tragic, the ending underscores the idea that, despite our best efforts, trauma can still overwhelm us.
How was the scene filmed where you set yourself on fire?
The practical effects were crucial for those intense scenes. When we set the house on fire, it was a real house being set ablaze, not a simulation. The monster was a physical entity, not a CGI creation. For the self-immolation scene, it was water, and we lit a match in a dimly lit, old space, creating a genuinely eerie atmosphere. It was quite intimidating! They even crafted a dummy of me for the scene where my face gets ripped open. Interestingly, I didn’t witness the dummy enactment because I was exhausted and took a nap during my only time off when my dummy took over.
How did you transition out of the dark mindset when not filming?
It took some time. It’s challenging to detach from such a dark and immersive project, a realization that came gradually. Beyond the darkness of the content, it was the sustained emotional state that demanded significant effort. Typically, there are lighter and more enjoyable scenes in a project, but this one lacked those moments. The extended hours in that intense state did leave an impact. Yet, I made a conscious effort to distance myself after filming. Returning home, reconnecting with myself, and engaging in activities outside the film’s context helped to find balance.
Do you believe Rose actually harmed Mustache, her cat?
Considering I was inhabiting Rose’s perspective, I don’t think she did it. It’s hard for me to imagine her committing such a heinous act. She consistently goes to great lengths to avoid causing harm to anyone. Personally, as someone with several animals, the thought of not knowing their whereabouts would be horrifying, and I believe Rose shares that sentiment.
Smiles are typically associated with positivity, but why do you believe they are so effectively used as a source of horror in this film?
The choice of a smile, a commonly encountered facial expression denoting happiness, adds to its impact as a horror element. It plays on the contrast between the expected positive association and the twisted, deranged nature depicted in the film. By subverting the usual perception of a smile, it becomes an iconic image with a heightened sense of horror.
What were your parents’ thoughts on the movie?
In jest, they hated it and think I’m terrible — just kidding. On a serious note, they loved it and expressed immense pride. However, they found it quite disturbing to watch.