*/**** Image B+ Sound A Extras C
starring Kate Hudson, Gena Rowlands, John Hurt, Peter Sarsgaard
screenplay by Ehren Kruger
directed by Iain Softley
by Walter Chaw Wait, let me get this straight: black folks want to be white folks? Or is it that black folks have to be white folks because the black folks who could potentially be possessed are too afraid of ghosts to hang around long enough? Screenwriter Ehren Kruger's latest illiterate piece of crap (the degree to which his script for the legitimately effective The Ring was doctored is now the stuff of Hollywood legend) addresses these and other pressing plantation-era questions when he deposits snowflake buttercup Caroline (Kate Hudson) into the heart of bayou country, deep in Angel Heart Louisiana, where every phonograph spins a Dixie Cups platter and every cobwebbed attic has a secret hoodoo room. (Who do? You do.) That it's racist in the way that a lot of privileged white people are racist (casually and ignorantly--see also: Georges Lucas and President Bush) could possibly be defended by arguing that it reflects the naivety of the film's main character, hospice nurse Caroline, positioned as sensitive because she reads Robert Louis Stevenson to her charges until they die.
Directed by Iain Softley, who never met a project he could elevate, The Skeleton Key is more likely just ignorant trash so desperate for twist-hungry jackasses left in the lurch by patron saint Shyamalan that its central promotional campaign seems to involve having Hudson exclaim as often as possible on shows like "Access Hollywood" that the twist ending surprised her. Not only is what surprises Hudson a poor standard by which to judge whether something is surprising, but considering how telegraphed and predictable The Skeleton Key's payoff is, neither can it in good conscience be called a twist. It's just how genre movies used to end when they had a beginning, middle, and end instead of, as most of The Skeleton Key provides, a bright idea exhumed from a fifty-year-old EC Comic padded out to 90 minutes with people jumping out at you and jangling violins on the soundtrack. See if you can figure it out without me spelling it out for you like the movie does--twice: once at around the 30 minute mark, then again during an extended epilogue that stops just short of using interpretive dance, American sign language, spreadsheet diagrams, and pinafore.
Caroline takes a job looking after a stroke-afflicted old man (John Hurt) at the behest of smooth estate lawyer Luke (Peter Sarsgaard) and against the wishes of the old man's Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte wife, Violet (Gena Rowlands). Soon Caroline happens upon a bunch of mutilated baby dolls and mirrors (see also: Walter Salles's similar-in-so-many-other-ways-too Dark Water), learns the story of how an old black servant couple (Mama Cecille (Jeryl Prescott) and Papa Justify (Ronald McCall)) were lynched and set on fire for teaching their white master's children the dark arts, and then discovers that Papa Justify, before his untimely immolation, had figured out the secret to eternal life by "borrowing" years from other people. Caroline, of course, tries to play the hero, and Caroline, of course, uncovers the awful truth at least ten, fifteen steps behind every single sentient person in the audience.
Blame Kruger, who writes the most insipid non-Akiva Goldsman scripts in Hollywood, cobbling together creaky bon mots and every dusty cliché in the book with a shameless avarice. Also responsible for the disastrous The Brothers Grimm, he's popular because he writes movies producers can understand. And because he's reduced every genre into a plug-and-play exercise, he writes them really fast. If it's a rural transgression horror movie, then there must be the mysterious old gas station with its blind and/or toothless mutants bearing unheeded warnings; the black juju woman who knows more than she's saying; the beater of a car that doesn't start at the wrong time; and the sassy black best friend who knows better than to mess around with whatever her crazy Aunt Mammy's cooking up behind the shack. Blame Softley, too, for a negro-spiritual-cum-Moby style that doesn't so much make a few of the classic blues tunes on the soundtrack immediate for a modern audience as squeeze them through the pastry horn of adolescence, weightlessly depositing every potentially atmospheric moment like a sweet little decorative nothing.
It's not to say that there aren't moments in The Skeleton Key that show off the film's budget (I daresay that most of the flick is at least pleasant to look at in a dispassionate sort of way), but that the picture is free of scares, tension, or ultimately much sense. No crime to be of no consequence, certainly--a shame that The Skeleton Key had not resisted being a pretentious, racist piece of mainstream garbage speculating in its empty-headed way about the white man's burden and the black man's envy. Originally published: August 12, 2005.
by Bill Chambers Universal presents The Skeleton Key on DVD in competing widescreen and pan-and-scan editions, of which we received the former for review. The 2.35:1, 16x9-enhanced transfer looks a little overfiltered; between its lack of fine detail and overcast appearance, the image can be eye-straining at times, but there's a depth to it that simultaneously impresses. Providing sufficient atmosphere, the attendant 5.1 Dolby Digital audio, er, conjures a couple of good scares, mostly by reserving the LFE channel for sting notes. Dialogue is easy to make out even with the preponderance of faux-Cajun, and the discrete rain effects achieve a startling authenticity. On another track, find a feature-length commentary from director Iain Softley in which he attempts to (papa) justify his attraction to the project. Clearly this was recorded before The Skeleton Key opened theatrically, as the fact that nature would go on to erase the city in which the movie was shot is never observed. Softley returns in optional commentary for a 22-minute block of deleted scenes, which rather fascinatingly reveals that test-screening audiences rejected a romantic subplot between Kate Hudson and Peter Sarsgaard. Confounded though he is, Softley seems loath to speculate why the great unwashed picked this moment to exercise good taste.
The disc also boasts a bevy of featurettes--"Behind the Locked Door: The Making of The Skeleton Key" (5 mins.), "Exploring Voodoo/Hoodoo" (4 mins.), "Recipe & Ritual: Making the Perfect Gumbo" (3 mins.), "Blues in the Bayou" (6 mins.), "Kate Hudson's Ghost Story" (3 mins.), "Plantation Life" (4 mins.), "Casting Skeleton Key" (9 mins.), "John Hurt's Story" (3 mins.),"A House Called Felicity" (5 mins.), and "Gena's Love Spell" (1 min.)--so sketchy, choppy, and promotion-oriented that they have the cumulative impact of a late-night infomercial. The "Plantation Life" piece is especially galling because contemporary white owners of plantations speak on behalf of the slave experience therein, as though it were their ancestors out in the cotton fields. Almost as sticky is a member of the Ebenezer Church Choir's claim that Softley requested they insert "African sounds" (i.e., gibberish lyrics) into their music--from conception to DVD, the whole production is a throwback to Song of the South. However, if Anna Paquin shows up at my door as a result of Gena Rowlands's recommendation to write her name on a popsicle stick and stick it in a jar of honey, all is forgiven. Pre-menu trailers for American Pie Presents Band Camp, The Ice Harvest, and War of the Worlds round out the platter. Originally published: December 1, 2005.