Director: Brian Helgeland
Cast: Heath Ledger, Shannyn Sossamon, Benno Fürmann, Mark Addy, Peter Weller, Francesco Carnelutti
MPAA Rating: (for violent images, sexuality and language)
Running Time: 1:42
Release Date: 9/5/03
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Review by Mark Dujsik
The priests of The Order are an odd bunch. They don't spend their time listening to confessions or giving sermons or praying. Strangely, awkwardly writer/director Brian Helgeland handles them as if they were cops. They chase after demons through dark alleys—cross drawn, naturally—while yelling about sending them back to hell and visit the morgue to do postmortem examinations and visit ritualistic cults to question the soon-to-be hung. There's a scene in which the cardinal essentially sends them on a case in Rome, and I was waiting for him to chew them out saying, "And if you screw up this time, I'll have your crosses and holy water!" Alas, the line never came, but it might as well have. It's an exciting line of work, the priesthood, especially if you're part of the ancient order of the Carolingians, who seem to get all the dirty work. Exorcism is normal, and demons are around for all to see—you just need to know where to look. How anyone can see in the world of the movie in the first place, though, is another matter entirely. It's dark—really dark. There are scenes where you think the bulb has gone out in the projector.
Alex Bernier (Heath Ledger, playing an American with an Australian accent) is a member of the Carolingian order and pastor of a church in New York. After services one dark and gloomy night (the first of many to follow), Cardinal Driscoll (Peter Weller) tells him some sad news: the head of his order has died in an apparent suicide. We know that his death involves seemingly supernatural circumstances revolving around a man we later learn is named William Eden (Benno Fürmann, playing an Italian with a German accent). Now there are only two members of the order left, Alex and his old friend Thomas Garrett (Mark Addy, playing a man living in Paris with a British accent). Alex calls Thomas, who has just chased a demon down a dark alley with his cross drawn, and tells him the bad news. They plan to meet in Rome, but first, Alex receives an unexpected visit from Mara Sinclair (Shannyn Sossamon), who has just escaped from an asylum where she was institutionalized for attempting to kill Alex when he was performing an exorcism on her. Needless to say, there's some sexual tension between the two.
The first act is terrible. Beyond the fact that Alex and Thomas operate as spiritual crime-stoppers, there's a lot of spiritual hokum that's played straight. Take the presence of two small children at the head of the order's home. Alex alludes to the fact that they're demons of some sort, but in a later scene, after Alex has secretly buried his mentor's corpse in consecrated ground (I told you it was exciting work), they make a random appearance. Alex has to walk toward them—again, cross drawn—and send them back to hell, which of course means that they transform into bats and fly toward the camera. There's no doubt or mystery to these otherworldly possibilities, so instead of having an air of the supernatural, it all seems rather ordinary. Conversations are enigmas, with characters ending thoughts on cryptic statements that do not have any real bearing on themselves, the story, or its themes—only the appearance of such. Speaking of appearance, because of the general darkness of the movie, it's impossible at times to tell what's going on.
The light levels and quality improve greatly in the second act when the concept proper finally begins to show itself. To make a long story short, Eden is the successor to a long line of immortals called Sin Eaters, who literally eat the sins of the dying so as to give them a straight ticket to paradise. The practice is used mostly for those who have been excommunicated or are otherwise looked down upon by the Church. This develops into a fascinating and intelligent theological paradox of a character. His existence is a blemish on the Catholic Church, because by granting sinners they have condemned as irredeemable redemption, he is essentially proving them wrong through a loophole. He's established as an evil force, but through his convincing conversations with Alex, we understand his reasoning. Indeed, he speaks so persuasively that one can't help but think that perhaps it's a case similar to Satan in Paradise Lost. Even in this section of the movie, though, Helgeland falls back on spoken enigmas, and Alex's dilemma arises only because Thomas gets himself injured and is no longer available for guidance. There's also the issue of Benno Fürmann's performance. He's competent in the role, but it's missing a much-needed charisma.Then things fall apart again in the third act, and we're forced to rethink everything that seemed to work in the second. Suddenly, it gets dark again, almost as if the light level of the movie coincides with Helgeland's grasp on his material. The climax that leads us into the final events depends on the relationship between Alex and Mara, but because it's never developed enough, it seems as puzzling as some of the dialogue. The Order's last act uncovers a conspiracy that has had no setup and lowers the Sin Eater concept into a cheap, predictable twist ending. Which is too bad, really, because it is a great concept. It simply deserves a much better movie than this.
Copyright © 2003 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.