Film Review: The Institute

James Franco’s outdated glimpse inside Rosewood Institute strives for 19th-century chills, but this “based on a true story” sedative packs little genre significance.
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There has to be a more compelling story about Rosewood Institute worth telling. How else do you attract actors like James Franco, Josh Duhamel and Tim Blake Nelson? If we’re to believe IMDB.com, even Pamela Anderson makes an appearance—but I haven’t the faintest idea when. Come to think of it, none of The Institute leaves much of an impression. Franco and co-director Pamela Romanowsky fail to summon the requisite horrors, despite the film’s inspiration: a “true-life” female trafficking scheme that cemented Rosewood’s legacy (until closing in 2009).

Baltimore, 1893. Sophisticate Isabel Porter (Allie Gallerani) arrives at Rosewood Institute seeking a cure for melancholy. Brother Roderick (Joe Pease) is worried about how the deaths of their parents have weakened Isabel’s well-being. Dr. Torrington (Eric Roberts) assures both Porter siblings that Rosewood will provide the quiet reflection required for Isabel’s betterment. She becomes a patient, under the care of Dr. Cairn (Franco) and Dr. Lemelle (Nelson), while caretakers hide pseudo-scientific experiments and nightly dives into occult practices. Not exactly the “glorified day spa” Dr. Torrington promised.

The problem is, there’s never any doubt that The Institute will reveal a seedy underbelly. Adam and Matt Rager’s script is like a made-for-television procedural, never challenging generic genre structures. Rosewood’s dusty halls constantly echo with screams, but Isabel’s investigations rarely repay audience intrigue. It’s the same mysterious game movies like A Cure For Wellness play, except The Institute never develops beyond Lifetime-channel stuffiness. That alone dampens any directorial vision that Franco or Romanowsky might attempt, reducing the impact of an otherwise massive prison with claustrophobic scene-setting.

We’re transported back to a time when independent women were seen as daft. Curiosity is viewed as a mark against Isabel’s character—a sign of unwomanly ambition. Dr. Cairn’s encouragement to think freely does speak towards continued gender discrepancies, but as the film presses on, that underlying theme fades. It seems that The Institute has more to say on the subject until Dr. Cairn’s methods shift focus to brainwashed patients. Social relevance takes a backseat to rigid performances and talk of witchcraft.

Franco’s role as Dr. Cairn is cut-rate psychiatry at best, while the Rosewood patients range from bland-but-insane to high-class snobbery. It’s hard to distinguish between slick-haired men and ruffled female socialites, even harder when cloaked society members don animal masks.

As temptations of the night give way to easily deciphered mind games by day, The Institute quickly loses momentum. The more Isabel learns, the more she becomes embroiled in Dr. Cairn’s deadly game. Other characters assert momentary importance—a hunchback servant (Scott Haze), naked cultists—but the sum of Isabel’s fears is underwhelming at best. Watching The Institute, you’ll feel caught in a musty chamber with no escape, slowed by wolfsbane serums that beckon the deepest of sleep. No prescription will cure what ails this botched indie experiment.

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