Fox // 2003 // 102 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge David Johnson // January 7th, 2004
There is a fate worse than death.
Following the popular trend of recent, supernatural chillers (begun with the success of The Sixth Sense and continued with such hits as The Ring and misses like Gothika), The Order arrives on the scene to place its bet. Featuring a creepy, grainy trailer that hinted at metaphysical mayhem and an atmosphere of church conspiracy, this religious thriller was martyred on the big screen by audiences. Will it find resurrection on video store shelves with this release?
We find estranged priest, Father Alex Bernier (Heath Ledger), spinning his wheels in a small church in New York City, when news of his mentor's death meets his ears. Spurred on by the fact that it was a mysterious suicide, as reported by Cardinal Driscoll (Peter Weller), Bernier hops a jet to the Vatican, and faster than you can say "cataclysmic catechism" five times fast, he's waist-deep in papal intrigue and general, supernatural zaniness.
Turns out there's a rogue absolution-granter running around called the "Sin Eater," a man who operates outside of the church, and according to the film, the bubble of God's salvation. The Sin Eater grants a blank slate to those who are excommunicated. Using some bread, a cross, and a dabble of special effects, this man literally ingests a person's wrongdoings, making the newly cleansed Pearly Gate-friendly.
Bernier suspects his mentor died at the Sin Eater's hands, and embarks on an investigation, aided by his co-fringe priest, Thomas Garrett (Mark Addy) and his forbidden love-princess, Mara (Shannyn Sossoman, winner of this year's most original spelling of a common first name).
As these sleuths delve deeper into the heart of the Sin Eater legacy, everywhere they are besieged by creepy children-cum-demons and a particularly brutal, apparently godless sect and the Sin Eater himself.
It is in the final confrontation with the latter that Bernier realizes his destiny, and the secrets to a dark history outcast by the church.
Holy moly is this flick slow. Hey, I've got no problem with slowly-escalating, tension-drenched cinema, but The Order just fails to pay off in a satisfying way.
I went in expecting a supernatural thriller, led to believe by the trailers that Father Bernier was a gifted paranormal investigator looking to crack the case of some chilling murders. Not so. Instead it is an unidentifiable, overcooked casserole of quasi-occult thriller hodgepodge mixed with church politics and a dash of murder mystery; we have here a variety of ingredients that lead to something bland and unsavory.
The Sin Eater character certainly sounds like a unique, menacing construct, but as the mystery of who he is becomes clear, we find that he's really not all that interesting. In fact, the entire movie takes on this quality, full of blue-ball buildup with revelations that fail to be as provocative as they should.
And to me this is surprising: supernatural thrillers set with the backdrop of religion seems to me like a recipe for very effective chills (read: The Exorcist and the woefully underappreciated The Exorcist III). Yet, in recent years, Hollywood has botched the recipe, delivering decidedly crappy religious fare, save for one or two gems. Witness Babylonian-sized disappointments like End of Days, the Schwarzenegger vehicle that succeeds in making Armageddon ho-hum, and the abysmal Stigmata, a movie that shockingly eluded the sharp tongue of theologians and Christian critics; perhaps, as filmmaker Kevin Smith noted, this is because the movie was sub-par, to be kind. (As a side-note, Smith's Dogma, in my opinion, stands tall as a provocative, fervently religious piece of faith-work.)
Back to The Order. Director and writer Brian Helgeland has pieced together a religious thriller that is neither religious nor thrilling. Amidst this rubble exist a few interesting ideas (Bernier and Garrett's ancient order of "Carolignians," trained to smite demons and ghosts, never really expounded on), but The Order is a textbook (or Biblical?) example of a whole weighing far less than the sum of its parts.
I was initially intrigued by the concept of the "Sin Eater," possibly because at first glance the name sounds pretty cool, but was ultimately disappointed; the tension arises not so much from the character's malevolence -- though he is certainly no choirboy -- but from his evasion of proper theology and, thus, the umbrella of the Divine. Frankly, this failed to compel me, and the very lethargic pacing of the film grinded any developing coolness down to a halt.
Ledger here is capable, but fairly stiff nonetheless. Sossamon, as Mara, though comes up really short; to be fair, she had little to work with in a very underdeveloped character and faux-romance with Bernier. Addy turns in the most entertaining performance as the charismatic Father Garrett.
The video transfer is clean, though so much of the film takes place in the dark or by faint candlelight. The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is underused, save for a scene where two demonic children evaporate into a ton of birds.
With the disc are a handful of "unrated" (wooooo) deleted scenes ranging from the boring to the bizarre (Garrett's ultimate fate). Director Brian Helgeland offers an elucidating commentary track in which he seems to miss the point that this is, basically, a disappointing flick.
Hey, but the guy has faith.
Starting off with promise but eventually succumbing to a meditation on metaphysical meanderings and church conspiracy, The Order -- despite a foreboding atmosphere and a handful of creepy scenes -- delivers not manna, but month-old Spam. Phew!
The court thanks Mr. Helgeland and crew for a righteous attempt on the religious thriller genre, but because of the molasses-slow, uninteresting, not-so-thrilling fruit of their labors, all are ordered to remedial Sunday School.
Review content copyright © 2004 David Johnson; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (French)
Running Time: 102 Minutes
Release Year: 2003
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Director's Commentary
* Unrated Deleted Scenes
* Official Site