Director : Brian Helgeland
Screenplay : Brian Helgeland
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2003
Stars : Heath Ledger (Alex Bernier), Shannyn Sossamon (Mara Sinclair), Benno Fürmann (William Eden), Mark Addy (Thomas Garrett), Peter Weller (Driscoll), Francesco Carnelutti (Dominic), Mattia Sbragia (Apathetic Bishop), Mirko Casaburo (Little Boy), Giulia Lombardi (Little Girl)
The Order reunites the major players who two years ago brought us the giddy-goofy medieval action flick A Knight’s Tale—including writer/director Brian Helgeland and stars Heath Ledger, Shannyn Sossamon, and Mark Addy—but the two movies couldn’t be any different. While A Knight’s Tale was a fun, thoroughly calculated crowd pleaser with a silly postmodern spin (using ’70s rock tunes to score jousting competitions), The Order is a bleak and humorless gothic chiller that induces more snores than shivers.
Ledger stars as Alex Bernier, a young, stylishly unshaved Catholic priest undergoing a crisis of faith. Alex’s unorthodox mentor, Father Dominic (Francesco Carnelutti), has just died under mysterious circumstances in Rome. Alex and Dominic were members of a small and mysterious order, thus he feels implicated in his mentor’s death and travels to Rome to investigate at the behest of a power-seeking cardinal (Peter Weller). He takes with him a young woman named Mara (Shannyn Sossamon), who just escaped from a mental hospital for having tried to kill him during an exorcism and is now tempting him to give up his vow of celibacy and trade spiritual devotion for earthly love and affection (can there ever be a movie about a Catholic priest that doesn’t somehow incorporate this overused spirit-vs.-the-flesh sexual dilemma?).
The real story, though, is in the film’s original (and much better) title, The Sin Eater (the film—not surprisingly—sat on a shelf for almost a year). Once in Rome, Alex finds that Dominic was involved with a man named William Eden (Benno Fürmann), who has lived for hundreds of years as a “sin eater,” a special person who takes on the burden of another’s sins and thus allows entry into heaven by bypassing traditional salvation. Alex doesn’t know it, but Eden has grown tired of hundreds of years on earth as a sin eater (despite becoming fabulously wealthy in the process) and wants Alex to take his place.
Granted, some of the basic ideas in The Order are fascinating in their own right, but they don’t make for good cinema. Religious horror is a narrow field that has to be done either exceptionally well (as in the original The Exorcist) or else it feels contrived, silly, and pretentious (as in the sequel, Exorcist II: The Heretic). Dealing with religious themes in movies is always tricky business, and Catholicism has been so overused at this point as a crossroads between spirituality and horror that virtually everything associated with it has stumbled into irredeemable clichés.
The Order certainly has its share of visual clichés (for example, two demonic children who exist for absolutely no narrative purpose other than to provide the film with a couple of demonic children), and it also has pretension written all over it, especially the way writer/director Brian Helgeland overworks his dark atmosphere and labored silences to fill in where the narrative becomes simply monotonous. There is little spark to the film, and it’s neither scary nor spiritually invigorating. Worst of all are the film’s utterly lame computer-generated special effects, which attempt to visualize what a lifetime’s sins coming out of one’s body would look like, but succeeds only in looking supremely silly (the semi-transparent sin tendrils that come out of a person’s chest look not a bit unlike the octopus machines in the Matrix films).
The actors give it their best shot, with Ledger mumbling under his breath and brooding like a Catholic Batman (the end of the movie even tries to turn him into some kind of bizarre superhero). Sossamon looks appropriately conflicted as she pines away for him, and she almost manages to redeem a silly speech in which she calls sunflowers “God’s beautiful mistake” because they look like gaping mouths with broken teeth—huh? That’s a pretty good description of The Order, as it turns out to be little more than a big gaping mouth that swallows everything—logic, coherence, interest, and the viewer’s time—in its wake.
Copyright © 2003 James Kendrick