Judge Christopher Kulik almost made out a grocery list while watching this movie.
Power comes with a price.
Since joining the Verdict staff, there are several films I've reviewed that are spiritual/religious in nature. To nonbelievers, they may sound like propaganda. As for myself, I really don't mind them as long as they don't make one fatal error: being too preachy. It's a dangerous move on the part of the filmmakers because you just end up limiting your audience.
When I popped The List into my DVD player, I had no idea it was a Christian film. Based on a novel by lawyer-turned-writer Robert Whitlow, the story is an unusual hybrid of Civil War history, extreme greed, and spiritual healing. Now it has come to DVD courtesy of Fox, though can it appeal to non-Christians as well?
Facts of the Case
Agnostic lawyer Renny Jacobson (Chuck Carrington, JAG) is stunned to hear of his father's recent passing. What's more stunning is the will was slightly altered right before his death, with the majority of his 22 million dollar estate being bequeathed to the Covenant List of South Carolina, Ltd. It's better known to members as "the List," a secret society created at the end of the Civil War to ensure that immediate families in the future are financially stable. Determined to claim his share of his father's trust, he boldly attends the next meeting to lay down his case.
Along the way, Renny meets the cute Jo Johnston (Hilarie Burton, One Tree Hill). Both discover that they are headed to the same destination, as Jo's father also passed away recently. While she isn't inducted as a member of the List because she's not a male heir, she is still determined to find information about her father. After Renny gets inducted, he and Jo decide to spend more time together and delve into their ancestry. However, Renny is unaware of the consequences surrounding his pact with the List, and its leader Desmond Larochette (Malcolm MacDowell, A Clockwork Orange), has motives which are not quite altruistic.
The first viewing of The List remains a blur to me. I followed the story quite well, though I felt disconnected from the characters for some reason. Either way, I wasn't prepared to comment on the film, so I decided to then read Whitlow's book. While I found it longer than it needed to be (and, like the film, more preachy than I would have preferred), it was quite involving and intense. I also preferred the book because the characters were much better developed (the film only barely hints at Jo's love of God), and the romantic liaison between the two leads was more layered. That's not to say the movie wasn't faithful to the book, as the themes carried over intact.
I don't think The List's spiritual elements are overdone. However, what annoys me about these types of stories is that they push prayer as the ultimate panacea for all personal problems. The film tends to be a bit repetitive in explaining the benefits of prayer though, thankfully, it isn't laid on with too heavy a hand. Despite some sluggish moments, I was hooked throughout the first hour. When it came to the second hour, the film adds a mystical element that I found too hard to swallow; wisely, Whitlow remained subtle to the end and didn't depend on obvious melodrama. Someone should have sent a memo to writer/director Gary Wheeler saying "less is more."
Otherwise, Wheeler's eye for detail makes The List worthwhile. Veteran second-unit cameraman Tom Priestley, Jr. (Midnight Cowboy) shoots at various locations in North Carolina, and the results are austere and lovely. The piano score by James Covell is audibly rewarding. Add to that the magnificent production design (love that Southern mansion the List meets at), and you got one great-looking picture.
As for the performances, they run hot-and-cold. Chuck Carrington may have the pretty boy dimension down to a tee, though I never sympathized with his rather icy character. Still, his accent is quite good (considering he's a fellow Virginian), and there are several scenes where he accomplishes more than just having his mouth open. Either way, he's completely outshone by Malcolm McDowell, even though he is essentially the antagonist; quite simply, he commands every scene he's in. Fellow veteran Pat Hingle (Batman) does what he can with his few scenes, and Will Patton has a disarming cameo as a priest.
Also hailing from the state of Virginia is Hilarie Burton. That her role here lacks strength and conviction is the fault of Wheeler's script, as her character was more fully fleshed out in the book.
Fox's treatment of The List is more than respectable. Presented in its original theatrical ratio of 1.85:1, the widescreen print is stellar, if occasionally soft at times. Black levels and flesh tones are awesome, and the picture is dirt and debris-free. Surprisingly, Fox has supplied us with a 5.1 Surround sound track, as well as subtitles in English, French, and Spanish. The extras are also impressive, as we are treated to an audio commentary with writer/director Gary Wheeler and Hilarie Burton. While they tend to stray from technical details, they are both enthusiastic and fun to listen to. Also included are some deleted scenes, a short featurette, and a bible study list that you can access through your computer.
While I didn't think the The List was anything special, it's worthy enough of a rental.
Fox and the film are found not guilty. Court is adjourned.
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