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Case Number 05113

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The Reckoning

Paramount // 2003 // 110 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge David Johnson // September 1st, 2004

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All Rise...

Fun Judge Fact!: If Judge David Johnson were living in the Middle Ages, he reckons he'd be a cobbler.

The Charge

An exiled priest. A mysterious murder. A crime of passion.

Opening Statement

The Middle Ages were hard times, boy. What with the plague and all. But, a child-killer on the loose? Now that's just adding insult to injury. Luckily, Willem Dafoe and Paul Bettany are on the case!

Facts of the Case

Nicholas the Priest (Bettany, A Beautiful Mind) has become Nicholas the Fugitive. We find him alone in the wilderness, flashing back to his previous life—just days ago—as a respected member of the cloth for a small village. But when the lure of a peasant wife sucks him into a sweaty bout of adultery, he became an outcast, and an empty robe.

As he wanders the woods he falls upon a band of traveling actors, headed by Martin (Dafoe, Spider-Man), who are getting ready for their next gig. After much begging and an embarrassing audition, he convinces them to let him join the troupe, much to the chagrin of the some of the veteran players, particularly the grumpy Tobias (Brian Cox, Every Movie Ever Made Ever).

The troupe's travels take them into a village ruled over by a mysterious potentate, Lord De Guise (Vincent Cassell, Brotherhood of the Wolf). They hit the town just in time to witness a guilty verdict handed down to a child-killer, a deaf-mute woman charged with murdering a young boy.

A cold reception greets the actors, however, when they put on their first play, the story of Adam and Eve. Biblical epics are the troupe's specialty, but Martin yearns to take the players in a new direction—creating plays based on true events. As such, he chooses to reenact the story of the murder that has just happened in town. But as Martin and Nicholas investigate the circumstances surrounding the crime, they begin to question the veracity of the verdict.

Deeper and deeper they dig, and what they uncover is the dark truth of ultimate power. But the only way to tell their story, and prevent innocent blood from being spilled, is to do so in the fashion and the medium they know best.

The Evidence

The Reckoning is an excellent movie. I had never even heard of it before slipping into my DVD player, but I'm glad I made its acquaintance. There are many aspects of the movie worth lauding, and these far outweigh the minor grievances.

First is the cinematography. This film is just ludicrously beautiful. Whether director Paul McGuigan turns his vision to expansive European landscapes, dirty village hovels, or tomb-like cathedrals, the movie never once betrays its setting. The Reckoning is shot in the Middle Ages. The atmosphere is dark and dreary and people are dirty, and all of this adds to the realism. Particularly, his rendering of the troupe's wagon, a bright red tarp covering it, stands out amidst the blah surrounding it, and this motif reappears throughout the film (reminding me of Spielberg's use of the color red in Schindler's List).

Second is the acting. The plot is engrossing, and the mystery is serviceable (though predictable), but what grounds the film is the acting chops on its two leads. Dafoe and Bettany are terrific, and are blessed with rich characters to portray. Bettany's Nicholas is burdened with shame, and though he feels cast from the flock to some degree, he will not shed his decency, nor his struggle for atonement. It is Nicholas's passion that drives the quest for truth in the movie. And Dafoe's Martin grows into this passion; he is an honorable man, reluctant to muddy his hands at first, but his transformation—and the subsequent transformation of his colleagues—into truth-tellers is compelling.

Another element that struck me about the The Reckoning was its unique characterizations. Though the setting was bleak and dark, the people, surprisingly, were not. I was expecting amorality at every turn, when in fact it turned out the only evil character was, well, the murderer. Frankly I was surprised and refreshed to see a positive portrayal of humanity, people willing to counter wrongdoing.

And lastly was the film's treatment of theology. McGuigan recognizes the socio-political importance of religion in the Middle Ages, and he portrays the beliefs not as backwards and embraced by simpletons, but as meaty ideals, grappled with by everyone, from actors to ex-priests to ruling lords. The best way I can put it is this: The Reckoning treats the tenuous issue of religion intellectually and intelligently. Kudos.

Where the substance is glorified in this disc, the style, unfortunately, is damned. The widescreen presentation does the excellent cinematography some justice, but the pathetic transfer sours the milk. Edge enhancement runs rampant, and there are some serious problems with graininess. A real disappointment. On the audio front, you get a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix that doesn't have too much to do, but sounds crisp anyway.

Only the theatrical trailer makes up the bonus material. Oh, and who gives a crap.

The Rebuttal Witnesses

I have to say this: I couldn't help think through the investigative portion of the narrative—and this was echoed by my fellow viewers—that the film took on the characteristics of CSI: Europe-in-the-Middle-Ages. At one point I half-expected William Petersen to walk into the cemetery and dust for prints.

Closing Statement

Check out this movie. I think you'll like it. The end.

The Verdict

On the first charge of "Making a Bad Movie" in the First Degree, Paramount is found not guilty. On the second charge, of "Taking a Great Movie and Giving it a Pretty Crappy DVD Treatment" in the second degree, Paramount is found guilty. Court adjourned.

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Scales of Justice

Video: 75
Audio: 85
Extras: 65
Acting: 95
Story: 95
Judgment: 83

Perp Profile

Studio: Paramount
Video Formats:
• 2.35:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
• English
Running Time: 110 Minutes
Release Year: 2003
MPAA Rating: Rated R
• Drama

Distinguishing Marks

• Trailer


• IMDb
• Official Site

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