Movie Review: Mind Control Thriller ‘Distorted’ Mangles its Story

A woman believes she is being targeted by subliminal messages in Distorted, a convoluted and frustrating new Saskatchewan-shot thriller starring Christina Ricci and John Cusack that raises far more questions than it bothers to answer.

After suffering from an undisclosed traumatic event, Lauren Curran (a platinum blonde and nearly unrecognizable Ricci) has been experiencing nightmarish visions and needs a new change of scenery. She finds it with husband Richard (Brendan Fletcher) in the state-of-the-art apartment complex The Pinnacle, which comes complete with a security camera display in every flat to prove to her that those things she’s been seeing aren’t really there. 

Or are they? Lauren’s condition immediately worsens after moving into her futuristic surroundings, which comes complete with some ultra-creepy new neighbors and the fleeting sounds of Beautiful Dreamer emanating from nowhere in particular. 

And there’s Distorted’s deafening cutaways to stock subliminal message footage, which is sometimes shown on a TV screen and at other times seems to occur within Lauren’s mind. You know the stuff, random video clips sourced from interspersed with single-word messages like OBEY and KILL set to a high-pitched screech on the soundtrack. 

With Fletcher’s feckless hubby turning a deaf ear to Lauren’s plight – suggesting, shock-horror, that she may need to be hospitalized – Lauren is forced to resort to Google to solve her anguish. The exposition in Distorted comes from a subliminal message chat room that offers instant support and advice from a man who is not only in the same city as Lauren, but happens to be watching her as she types

I’d have my doubts about this mystery hacker, especially when he’s played by John Cusack in a dark hoodie and only speaks in hushed whispers, but he helpfully informs her that he can be trusted because it was she that contacted him. Cusack tells Lauren she isn’t crazy, and provides her with files on the old USA/USSR/China cold war mind control experiment race. As if she’s supposed to figure out what it all means. 

Like… why her? And who, if not the CIA, is conducting these new mind control experiments? And just what are they trying to get her to do?

You’ll find out if you can make it through the preposterous narrative of Distorted, but don’t expect the answers to make any sense: climactic scenes involving the bad guy’s ultimate plot, and Lauren’s plan to best them, are confusing, ridiculously convoluted, and ultimately laughable. 

Further sins: Distorted does nothing with its lone interesting aspect, that futuristic high-tech high rise, and its inconsistent, incoherent depiction of the subliminal messages makes John Carpenter’s They Live look like high art. 

But there is a nifty minutes-long sequence during the climax where Distorted suddenly turns into a Tarkovsky film, showcasing Ricci’s character wandering through barren Saskatchewan locales before bothering to resolve the story. I wish they’d let her continue to walk around aimlessly instead.

Distorted was directed by Rob W. King, who also made last year’s apocalyptic Nic Cage drama The Humanity Bureau; it’s a slicker and more engaging movie, but also a far less satisfying one. Because the script (by Arne Olsen) initially seems to be headed somewhere, it’s even more disappointing that Distorted ends up where it does.


Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at

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