He's Got To Be So Macho
Any doubts that the cinematic seasons are continuing their eternal cycle, and that we are currently in the arse-end of Blockbuster with Oscar Bait just around the corner, should be dispelled by just one single glance at the sort of films coming out now and in the next few
weeks. Yes, we're getting Hollywood's 'sleeper' hits (ie movies that have proven much more profitable than predicted), a few off-the-wall projects, and - of course - those big-budget extravaganzas that were about as well-received as a bomb in a playground. Although The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, or whatever it's called this week, has in fact been put back to October.
This sort of confusion over naming and release dates is normally a pretty good sign that the studios have given up on a movie and are only releasing it to scratch back what money they can. And this in turn should give all right-minded filmgoers fair warning to avoid this
sort of film like the plague, because while Hollywood frequently over-promotes a bad film, it very rarely buries a good one. But, mainly because I enjoyed A Knight's Tale, the last film of all the principals concerned, I went to see Brian Helgeland's latest project anyway. This film has the title of The Sin Eater in Britain and The Order in America, but - I have no doubt - will soon be known worldwide as Turgid Cobblers.
In this film Heath Ledger and Mark Addy play priests who are members of an obscure ghost-busting sect of the Catholic Church. Addy is Oirish, Ledger is - inevitably - Australian. When their former mentor dies in peculiar circumstances, both head back to Rome to see what's going on. Ledger brings along his nutty not-really-girlfriend (Shannyn Sossamon) too. Well, it turns out the Vatican is trying to cover up the activities of a supernatural being known as the Sin Eater (played, supernaturally badly, by Benno Furmann), a Dorian Grey-ish fellow who goes about devouring the sins of rich and unrepentant old men, thus allowing them to go to Heaven and him to live the life of Riley. (Sins, you may be interested to learn, look rather like transparent versions
of the squiddies from The Matrix.) Furmann wants Ledger to put aside his priestly vows and take over from him as Sin Eater. Ledger, on the other hand, quite fancies putting aside his priestly vows and engaging in sins of the flesh with Sossamon, some of which may well involve... well, you get the idea. Meanwhile, Peter Weller spends a lot of his screen time shouting in Italian with a bag over his head.
Well, the soundtrack and cinematography in this picture are both good and atmospheric, but the rest of it is nearly all unmitigated rubbish. This is one of those films you emerge from gob smacked that no-one involved didn't realise just what an atrocity was in the offing. The script is excruciatingly poor: not only does it contain stupid blunders (Sossamon escapes from an institution in New York, and is actively hunted by the NYPD, but is still able to fly to Italy the very next day) but it seems fundamentally conflicted as to what kind of film this is. It kicks off as a supernatural mystery, the gifted-but-troubled-loner-recalled-for-one-last-case scenario reminiscent of (for example) Red Dragon. But then it turns into what wants to be a thoughtful drama about sin and belief and redemption, before becoming a conspiracy thriller near the end. It is equally bad at all three.
The unevenness of the film doesn't stop here. Both music and direction suggest Helgeland was aiming for a mood of realistic low-key edginess, but this is regularly destroyed by excursions into pure Buffyesque horror-fantasy. The CGI effects which punctuate the film are intrusive and over-glossy and entirely unnecessary, and it's
jarring when - after an almost entirely naturalistic opening - Ledger is beset in a cemetery by some devil-children (yes, no cliché goes unused), who turn into sparrows when he waves a crucifix at them. 'What have I missed?' enquires Addy, upon appearing. 'Oh, demon-spawn,' shrugs Ledger, rather in the manner of someone recapping the most recent episode of Coronation Street. This is before we even get onto the film's belief that Catholicism and its more arcane theology is somehow innately fascinating to an audience, the horrible clunking expository dialogue, or Furmann rambling interminably on about redemption and faith and truth and all that sort of thing. Even the old exercise/exorcism gag gets wheeled out.
The quality of the script is fully reflected in its realisation. A murky and incoherent plotline is matched by scene after scene set in a gloomy half-light: they appear not to have access to electric light bulbs in Rome. The acting is pretty choice, too: Sossamon is hippy-drippy, and Weller clearly doesn't give a damn about trying to remain
credible. Addy initially gets the role of comic relief/best mate, and does his usual sterling work despite a terrible accent and rubbish dialogue. But by the end of the film he's reduced to staggering around, pop-eyed, shouting a lot. Ledger, on the other hand, portrays 'troubled' very well, but one is forced to suspect that this is not a brilliant portrayal of a man realising he's made a mistake becoming a priest, but simply a man realising he's made a mistake appearing in this film and forgetting to act. Ledger's one bravura moment comes near the end, when - look, I'm going to give away part of the climax now, but trust me, you don't want to see this film anyway - he comes home and stumbles upon Sossamon, who's dying. Ledger delivers the following choice dialogue (as closely as I can recall it, being too busy sniggering at the time to write it down): 'Awrggh. Awrrhhh. Hrrraaahhh. Baby! Baby! Hweagh. Hrraagh. Come back. Wrrrragh. I - I'm not a priest any more. Hrrrgh.' The results are, needless to say, unforgettable.
The Sin Eater, or The Order, or whatever you want to call it, basically boils down to the collision of pretentious arty horror with commercial Hollywood action fantasy. It's not even compellingly or entertainingly bad like some other films I've seen this year, it's just wretched and half-baked, frequently bordering on the incoherent (I suspect at least twenty minutes has been cut). On this evidence, Helgeland can't do brooding, moody, grown-up drama. Clearly trying to make a film in the style of The Omen, he's actually come up with something that has more in common with Father Ted - only without the gritty realism, obviously. Papal bull.
Coming soon: Kate Beckinsale in a pullover, Jason Statham in a rubber suit, and Bernard Cribbins in a mini. Or something like that, anyway.