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'The Order's' sins: too many to absolve

The murky religious thriller, starring Heath Ledger, unravels at all levels -- especially plot, direction and effects.

September 08, 2003|Manohla Dargis | Times Staff Writer

Here's casting the first of many stones: Brian Helgeland's "The Order" suffers from a multitude of sins. A clammy religious thriller about redemption and the stain of hubris, the story traces what happens when a dissident young priest graced with brooding good looks and a face full of stubble, Alex (Heath Ledger), travels from New York City to Rome to investigate the death of his excommunicated mentor. Once ensconced in the Eternal City, Alex, in league with the darkly jolly Thomas (Mark Addy) and wounded-bird Mara (Shannyn Sossamon), sets about fighting the "sin eater" (Benno Furmann), a cryptic figure who does God's work by absolving transgressions.

If only there were a sin eater for movies! "The Order" slipped into theaters Friday and is likely to appear at your local video store any second now. A narrative and visual muddle, the film wasn't screened for critics -- always a bad sign -- and fails on a very high order, doing justice neither to its juicy conceit nor its on-board talent. (The special effects are tragic.)

Cast adrift with vague, improbable characters and a plot that's at once under- and overcooked, the actors struggle to find a steady tone, lurching from somber to silly as the director tries to figure out what he's doing. One minute, Helgeland aims for some theological heft; in the next, Alex is inexplicably firing a gun at some satanic types whose gloom, sneers and fetish-wear reek of a seriously bad Berlin disco.

An appealing screen presence with questionable judgment in roles, Ledger is one of those young actors whose pretty face and premature arrival as the proverbial next big thing a few years back may be hurting his chances for a noteworthy career. Two years ago for "Monster's Ball," he plunged into the abyss and pulled out a wrenching portrait of a son undone by his father's contempt.

Nothing he's done since has hit as hard, but even in featherweight entertainments like Helgeland's last outing behind the camera, "A Knight's Tale," Ledger confidently holds the screen. Still, while his talent shines through the new film's murk -- there are scenes where it's literally impossible to see what's happening -- the actor never gets a bead on his character and neither do we.

Helgeland is one of the more puzzling characters knocking about Hollywood. He has a flair for condensing fat, unwieldy books into tight screenplays -- he co-write "L.A. Confidential" and has the sole writing credit on Clint Eastwood's forthcoming "Mystic River" -- and he cooked up the amusing "Conspiracy Theory." But he's also had a hand in his share of duds, including his aborted directing debut "Payback," which was snatched away by star Mel Gibson. Helgeland's resume points in all sorts of directions and it's clear from "The Order" as well as the amiably goofy "A Knight's Tale" that he isn't satisfied with sticking to formula. The problem is -- at least in respect to the films he's directed -- he doesn't seem to know what to do after he's tossed out the playbook.


`The Order'

MPAA rating: R, for violent images, sexuality and language

Times guidelines: Some gore, torture, adult language, blasphemy

Heath Ledger...Alex

Shannyn Sossamon...Mara

Mark Addy...Thomas

Benno Furmann...Eden

Peter Weller...Cardinal Driscoll

Twentieth Century Fox presents a Baumgarten Merims production, released by Twentieth Century Fox. Writer-director Brian Helgeland. Producers Brian Helgeland, Craig Baumgarten. Cinematographer Nicola Pecorini. Production designer Miljen Kreka Kljakovic. Costume designer Caroline Harris. Editor Kevin Stitt. Music David Torn. Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes.

In general release.

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