The Catholic church has been a source of inspiration for a whole slew of scary movies -- everything from goosepimpling tales of possession like "The Exorcist" to fact-based stories of institutionalized horror like the current art-house hit "The Magdalene Sisters."
But mostly these scary movies have not been all that frightening. In fact, mostly they've been forgettably cheap-fright thrillers that make up their own mythology, then dress it up in cassocks and clerical collars for mock-credibility, much like "The Order."
This dark supernatural thriller about a brooding young man of the cloth (lumpy-featured heartthrob Heath Ledger) in the midst of a major crisis of faith (there's this girl, see...) is loosely based on an archaic con offered to ex-communicated sinners on their deathbeds in Medieval times: Someone calling himself a "sin eater" would perform a ceremony in which, for a price, he would assume all the dying person's transgressions and guilt so he or she would be free to enter Heaven.
The plot involves Ledger seeking answers to his mentor's death by tracking of one of these sin eaters (Benno Furmann, "The Princess and the Warrior"), an apparent immortal who has resurfaced in present-day Rome and is trying to recruit the conflicted priest to be his successor. But the narrative is convoluted with requisite romantic temptations (once-possessed sultry pixie Shannyn Sossamon fell for the priest when he performed her exorcism), apparent murders accompanied by Aramaic graffiti, an ominous cardinal (an effectively unsettling Peter Weller) with the air of a CIA-styled Vatican spook, a Satanic cult with all the typical black-hood and underground-lair accoutrements, and demons, voices and spirits which come out of the candle-lit woodwork with such regularity that Ledger barely shrugs at having to dispatch them back to hell with histrionic brimstone ballyhoo.
Sneaked into theaters by 20th Century Fox without a press screening -- which means the studio thinks it's crap -- "The Order" has some paranormal promise and soul-searching perspicacity buried under its hazy layers of portentous atmosphere. But as written and directed by the imaginative Brian Helgeland (adapter of "L.A. Confidential" and the highly-praised "Mystic River," due out next month), there are deeper themes and emotions that just don't get their due from the film's lightweight leads.
Ledger, Sossamon and Mark Addy, playing another clergyman and Ledger's best friend, were perfect for Helgeland's outlandishly abstract, 13th century jousting-with-a-'70s-rock-soundtrack action-comedy "A Knight's Tale." But reuniting them here wasn't smart casting. None of the actors seem to connect with their characters. Ledger doesn't perceptively struggle with the collapse of his belief system or even question his attraction to Sossamon -- something which Addy encourages as if the priesthood is just his buddy's day job.
"The Order" only shows its conceptual depth in the scenes that find Ledger face-to-face with the complex, seductively haunted and menacing Furmann for a dogmatic tug-of-war over the entitlement and administration of last rites.
But despite almost two years of studio-mandated recutting and reshoots that have left the film feeling elusive and unfocused, Helgeland -- who was very excited about the project when I interviewed him just before filming began in 2001 -- holds his themes together fairly well until a last-act twist that relies on the hackneyed notion of a veiled villain unmasking himself for no explored reason and verbosely explaining his entire evil plan to the hero.
I'd be curious to know what went down between my interview in 2001 and the release of this second-rate chiller. But even if Helgeland had been given final cut, "The Order" has an underlying shallowness that would have been hard to disguise.
Run time: 102 mins
In Theaters: Friday 5th September 2003
Box Office USA: $7.5M
Box Office Worldwide: $11.6M
Distributed by: 20th Century Fox
Production compaines: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, Baumgarten Merims Productions, N1 European Film Produktions GmbH & Co. KG
Contactmusic.com: 2 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 8%
Fresh: 5 Rotten: 55
IMDB: 5.1 / 10
Director: Brian Helgeland
Starring: Heath Ledger as Alex Bernier, Shannyn Sossamon as Mara Sinclair, Benno Fürmann as William Eden, Mark Addy as Thomas Garrett, Peter Weller as Driscoll, Francesco Carnelutti as Dominic, Mattia Sbragia as Apathetic Bishop, Paola Emilia Villa as Sister Marie, Giulia Lombardi as Little Girl, Mirko Casaburo as Little Boy
Also starring: Benno Furmann
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