6 Souls is about as good as a movie called 6 Souls can possibly be, even when it’s bad. I don’t how much of a compliment that is, or even if it is a compliment. What I do know is that I relished the atmosphere created by directors Mårlind & Stein and I took great pleasure in noticing the clichés they were obviously not afraid to embrace. I also got into the plot, even when it lost itself amidst confusing explanations that at times seemed to contradict each other. I don’t believe the film is a parody or even unintentionally funny, but I do believe it was made with very specific goals in mind, namely to not reinvent the wheel and to be enjoyed superficially. I actually crave movies like this from time to time; they give my brain a chance to take a break. Not everything needs to be an intellectual challenge.
The film includes the following conventions, all of which, in the best possible sense, are simply allowed to be: Souls transferring into a host body, evoking a range of voices, accents, and behaviors; the battle between faith and science; a tragedy from nearly a hundred years ago affecting the present; a mountain witch who has the ability to suck out souls through a person’s mouth, blow them into a jar, suck them back in, and restore them into the person’s body; and unsettling images found within the frozen frames of a surveillance video. I had fun with them, but critics in the U.K., who saw the film in 2010 under the title Shelter, apparently didn’t, as it garnered almost universally negative reviews. It hasn’t fared much better now that it has been released here in the States.
It tells the story of a psychologist named Cara Harding (Julianne Moore), who has come to believe that multiple personalities or dissociative identities no longer qualify as a legitimate psychiatric disorder. Her father, also a psychologist (Jeffrey DeMunn), disagrees. To prove it, he arranges for Cara to meet his newest patient, who was found wandering the streets. When she first meets this patient (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), he’s a soft-spoken, wheelchair-bound man with a gentle southern accent named David. She runs the usual tests and asks the usual questions. Then her father makes a direct call to the phone in the room. When the patient answers, Cara’s father asks to speak to Adam. The patient convulses violently and turns into Adam, a tough-talking man with a thick New York accent. Unlike David, Adam isn’t paralyzed. Cara runs the same tests and asks the same questions, and yes, they yield different answers.
But Cara isn’t convinced. When she learns that David was in fact the name of a young man who was murdered in 1982, at which point Adam would have only been six, Adam became aware of the story through media coverage and adopted the personality as a coping mechanism for his own terrible existence. But all isn’t as it seems. It never is in movies like this. Specific people in Cara’s life are getting strangely ill, coughing up dirt and scratching furiously at their backs, which are forming blistering burns of a strangely-shaped cross. And her father’s patient is taking on other personalities, specifically of people who have just recently died. The common thread running through all the supposed personality shifts and the accompanying deaths is the loss of faith. This doesn’t bode well for Cara’s young daughter, Sam (Brooklyn Proulx), who became an atheist after the murder of her father. As for Cara, she describes herself as a doctor of science and a woman of God.
If you think this is starting to get confusing, just wait until you see the film’s final act, at which point the patient has amassed the six souls the title makes reference to and paves the way for a confrontation in a dark forest. The more explaining it does, the less sense it makes; more than once, we find ourselves questioning the connections between characters and events, only to realize that everything has been hopelessly entangled into a series of knots. I suspect many of the so-called explanations were included strictly because the film is of a genre that requires them. But shouldn’t it also be a requirement that the explanations are understandable, perhaps even plausible within the context of the story? We see the machinery at work, but we don’t see the logic behind it. It’s nothing more than a series of devices and twists that add style but no substance.
I shouldn’t in good conscience recommend this movie, but I’d be lying if I said that it didn’t hold my interest all throughout or that I didn’t appreciate the moody atmosphere. It is, I believe, one of my deviant streaks – to get into a movie knowing that it’s deeply flawed and fully aware that I will not be in good company. One of the saving graces of 6 Souls is the casting of Meyers, who’s in better form than one would expect from a movie like this; by faking six different accents and taking on six different styles of performing, he shows remarkable versatility, and even manages to be emotionally convincing. I was also genuinely frightened by the final scene, which pushes the boundaries of horror-movie overkill without actually breaching them. We’re left with a strong implication rather than a definite answer.