Back in the days of “NYPD Blue,” I was one of David Caruso‘s fans. Like most, I was disappointed when he left the show after only one season (1993-4). It is well-known how his first attempt to transition from small to big screen did not work out as he had planned. He did make a comeback, however, first in television and later in movies. “Session 9” (2001) is probably one of his best feature films to date from his return to fame and good fortune as an actor.
Directed by Brad Anderson (who co-wrote the screenplay with Stephen Gevedon, who also appears in the film), “Session 9” is a psychological horror/mystery film that Anderson filmed on location at an abandoned psychiatric facility in Danvers, Massachusetts. Very little set construction was necessary for this production, although the production added some props for additional effect.
In the story, the facility is Danvers State Hospital (as it is called in the film), which was closed fifteen years earlier and now sits empty, a target for vandals and other miscreants. Since it is on the national historic registry, the local municipal government can’t tear down the facility; instead, it has plans to renovate and use the facility as its headquarters. However, it is full of asbestos that must be removed before construction crews can start work. Enter asbestos abatement contractor Gordon (Peter Mullan) and his foreman Phil (Caruso). Gordon desperately needs the contract to keep his business solvent, so he offers to do the two-to-three week job in one week in exchange for a bonus if he finishes the job on time.
This offer concerns Phil because Gordon has lost the contracts for the past two jobs and is under a lot of stress due to a new baby that has an ear infection that just won’t go away. Moreover, Gordon has a truly motley crew that has its own internal issues. Hank (Josh Lucas) stole Phil’s girlfriend, which is an ongoing issue between the two men. Mike (Gevedon) is a law school dropout who has an ulterior motive for working the Danvers job. Jeff (Brendan Sexton III), Gordon’s nephew, is a mullet-headed dimwit with good intentions. Phil does not think Jeff is a reliable worker, but Gordon vehemently disagrees. Meanwhile, Hank takes Jeff under his wing, shows him the ropes, and gives him some sage advice about the need for an “exit plan” from what he considers a dead-end job.
All of this conflict is a setup for disaster, given what awaits these men at Danvers. From the start, Gordon starts having episodes in which a voice appears to address him, but he writes these experiences off to sleep deprivation. However, the hospital has a dark past involving former patient Mary Hobbes, whom doctors treated for multiple personality disorder with controversial recovered memory therapy. Mike finds and listens surreptitiously to the tapes of her treatment sessions. Meanwhile, Gordon becomes more and more paranoid about Phil, who believes that Gordon is cracking up. Hank finds a cache of silver coins and other valuables, but keeps this find to himself. He returns at night to retrieve them, but then disappears. When Phil tries to replace him with a dependable, experienced worker from another company, Gordon really starts to lose it.
There is some tension between possible reasons for the interpersonal meltdown in this group of men. There is plenty of foreshadowing that hints at a supernatural force at work, but it’s not possible to discount the possibility that Gordon is having a mental breakdown due to stress. Moreover, the editing of this film, which withholds explanation if at all possible, makes the viewer wonder whether or not Phil really is trying to undermine Gordon’s authority.
The fact that the first half of the movie is mostly a drama about the relationships among these men makes it possible to think that there is a natural (as opposed to otherworldly) explanation for the slow disintegration of Gordon’s crew. However, there is one more character — the facility itself, which looks like “a bat with bent wings” — that exerts its silent presence in almost every scene. It is this presence that keeps the possibility of horror from a supernatural cause alive until it finally discloses its presence in the third act. First, however, Mike has to listen to the first eight tapes of Mary’s psychotherapy treatment (which tease the audience with her back story, one nugget at a time) before he gets to the big reveal in the last reel — the recording of session 9.
Anderson chose to shoot “Session 9” on HD video. Given the state of this technology in the early 2000s, the result is somewhat coarse in appearance. In fact, the first scene looks almost like a made-for-TV movie. However, cinematographer Uta Briesewitz gets good results from this medium later in the film, capturing the light and shadows of the facility to good effect in both its wide open and narrow spaces. The editing (by Anderson) makes clever use of montage to shift from scene to scene on the basis of an image or sound that changes in its meaning from one scene to the next.
From the screenwriting perspective, one reason I like this film is the way that it uses a “time lock.” Gordon and his crew have only one week to complete the job. Therefore, the film’s storyline is limited to seven days. However, this is also a red herring. The action comes to its climax and denouement on the crew’s fifth day of work. On the negative side, the story has plot holes (for example, the true source of the coins and other “treasure” that Hank finds is revealed to the audience, but this information is not developed further).
Given the underdevelopment of many of the characters, the actors in this film all did a fantastic job of making their characters as round and believable as possible. They were assisted in no small way by their uncredited fellow cast member, the Danvers State Hospital, which has a palpable, almost living and breathing, presence in this film. Credit for this aspect of the film goes to director Anderson, who conceived of the concept for the film because he drove by the facility frequently and was intrigued by its cinematic potential. Unfortunately, he does not fully realize this potential, as the film builds to a logical, but somewhat stock, conclusion. I gave this film 3.5 out of 5 stars on Rotten Tomatoes.