By Sarah Musnicky
Music can be a vehicle for many things: enchantment, excitement, pain, and rage. It can take us on a journey, unlocking memories long since hidden and reminding us of the dreams we’ve left behind. All it takes is strong composition and an instrument as the vessel for delivery. This doesn’t sound so bad, right? In THE CELLO, this idea is shifted on its axis when a simple purchase turns into more than a cellist ever bargained for. The question is whether THE CELLO delivers the performance of a lifetime or gets cold feet before hitting the stage.
Based on Turki Al Alshikh’s novel of the same name, THE CELLO is directed by horror icon Darren Lynn Bousman and written by Turki Al Alshikh. In the supernatural thriller, we follow cellist Nasser Latif (Samer Ismail) with aspirations to join a world-renowned philharmonic. Leading up to this point, life has not been on inside. He’s separated from the potential love of his life and puts his music dreams on pause to take care of his sick mother, Haya (Suad Abdullah). With his cello literally falling apart, things are looking bleak. That is until a mysterious shopkeeper (Tobin Bell) leaves behind his card with the tempting offer of a new cello.
Gifted with money from his mother to go purchase the cello, the shopkeeper sells Nasser a distinctly unique cello. But there are rules to follow lest tragedy follow. Being a horror film, the ramifications of these rules don’t register for the desperate cellist until too late. Forced to choose between delivering a cursed requiem or risking the lives of those dearest to him, Nasser finds himself trapped between achieving his dreams or doing what’s right.
Starting with a scene that lays out the kind of Faustian bargain we’re dealing with in THE CELLO, viewers immediately get a sense of Nasser’s future dilemma. With a setting predominantly focused on Saudi Arabia, which is beautifully shot by cinematographer Maxime Alexandre, we can gauge how this instrument can transcend its curse into the modern era. As long as music is valued and dreams call desperately to be reached, someone will always be waiting to pick up this cursed bow, regardless of cultural setting.
This is part of the appeal surrounding Nasser's character. How many stories do we hear of people who gave up on their desires? How many stories do we also hear of people's lengths to reach their goals? Faustian bargain tales are nothing new, with Al Alshikh’s story treading all-too-familiar ground. However, through Bousman’s direction and actor Samer Ismail’s performance, Nasser is easily translatable to an international audience. His wants and needs are relatable to all. For a character that could easily be one-note, Ismail’s approach to Nasser gives us something to grasp. Also, major props to Ismail for knowing how to play the cello. It makes a difference in the performance sequences.
As for the characters surrounding Nasser, it’s easy to see how he’d feel the pressure to succeed. With his friends making blunt and cutting comments about his work, the overwhelming push by his mother, and the hot/cold dichotomy of Jeremy Irons’ Francesco and Tobin Bell’s Vincent, we see as plain as day the natural overwhelming influences in Nasser’s life. With music being the only source of stability, where else can he turn to? And I don’t know about you. If I were to witness Jeremy Irons having this much fun onscreen, I would likely want to try to keep him happy with suspicious music too.
That all said, THE CELLO loses its place on the page, creating an uneven cadence in its overall presentation. Part of this is due to how long it feels. Yes, the runtime is longer, but shortening certain scenes likely would have helped smooth out the pacing. In particular, the more cinematic transitional sequences in the home and the cinematic shots of the desertscape outside of one gorgeous location likely could have been cut for time, despite how utterly gorgeous they look in execution.
Another issue that accidentally launches THE CELLO at times in slightly campier territory is the execution of CGI and choice edit decisions. Whether it’s illustrating the power of Francesco through overlays or visually conveying the psychological strain on Nasser’s mind and body, it comes across as cheesier than intended. When the scares and such leaned more practical, the impact did read better onscreen. But likely due to budget, location, and time, these things can be explained away. When taking into account the overall film, these executed effects weighed down THE CELLO.
Does THE CELLO manage to lure viewers in with its decadent, seductive tones? Not entirely. The lagging pacing, coupled with some effects decisions, casts a pall over what could have been a successful symphony of horror. However, the performances from the cast, made all the better by Bousman’s direction, and the promise shown in Al Alshikh’s writing show that while in its infancy, Saudi Arabian horror can easily connect with an international audience. All it takes is the prospect of a dream and the question we’ve all asked ourselves – how far are we willing to go?