*½/**** Image B- Sound B Extras B
starring Heath Ledger, Shannyn Sossamon, Mark Addy, Benno Fürmann
written and directed by Brian Helgeland
by Walter Chaw Somewhere between the good-bad of Lost Souls and the bad-bad of Bless the Child is the medium-bad of The Order (just north of the medium-bad of Stigmata), a Brian Helgeland film that, using much of the same cast from his A Knight's Tale, squanders a pretty interesting concept and a handful of powerful scenes on so much confused exposition that it's nigh impossible to get too invested in the thing. More of a shame is that the foundation for the piece is such a strong one, revolving as it does around the idea that the Catholic Church would be hateful towards a personage who could absolve sin outside the Church proper, allowing sinners a "backdoor" into salvation. Since it's a simple conceit and a thorny one, it's easy to see why Helgeland thought he had something here. It's only with the ponderous details the hyphenate loads onto this cart that The Order gets irretrievably bogged down.
Alex (Heath Ledger) is a hot priest, a member of the order Carolingian enlisted in an ongoing, corporeal battle with the forces of the undead. Reunited with an exorcised girl who once tried to kill him (Mara (Shannyn Sossamon)), Alex and his Carolingian buddy Thomas (Mark Addy) journey to Rome to investigate the death of Alex's mentor (Francesco Carnelutti), meeting in their quest a deathless creature, a "Sin Eater" named Eden (Benno Fürmann) who offers redemption where the Church has turned its back. There is a scene in The Order where Alex struggles with the decision of whether he'd like to become a new Sin Eater that pulses with a sort of dark energy, and despite being badly miscast, Ledger, playing a person struggling to believe in a merciful god, delivers a convincing performance that suggests the promise of stardom could become a reality if only the actor were to choose his projects and allies with more care. Shot entirely in Italy, the picture is dank and brooding, reminding of a less-saturated version of the work Nicholas Roeg did in Venice for Don't Look Now and at direct odds with the common view of Italy as a sun-drenched paradise.
Helgeland does a lot of things right, in other words, but The Order is ultimately so worried about treating its ecclesiastical conundrum with sobriety that it frequently descends into unintentional hilarity, nervous camp, and eventually exasperation. As Cardinal Driscoll, a man of the cloth with designs on the papacy, Peter Weller achieves such tonal perfection that it's impossible not to wonder what kind of film this would have been had Weller been cast in the lead. That sort of second-guessing is endemic in Helgeland's work as a director (Payback, A Knight's Tale) and symptomatic of pieces that nurse within them the seeds of genre greatness, which are more often than not undone by a kind of "literalness" that defuses joy by dragging it into the talky mundane. Quentin Tarantino lives in genre; Helgeland just works there.
Fox releases The Order on opposite sides of a DVD-10 in widescreen and unmatted presentations that both show the strain of compression. The advertised 1.85:1 anamorphic video transfer (the actual ratio is closer to 1.77:1) is grainy and marred by edge-enhancement and moiré problems--a few early scenes in an Italian sewer look like a particulate storm in a cup of tea, it's that bad. After initial complaint, however, the image seems to clean itself up a little, leaving the last hour or so of the picture better if still undeniably marred. The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is clear though surprisingly free of atmospherics, some thunder and lightning in a graveyard notwithstanding.
Helgeland provides a commentary that spends a lot of time contrasting this film with A Knight's Tale for no good reason ("Hey, they meet in a church in Knight's Tale, too")--he's conversational and warm, however, so the inanities are easier to take. The commentary he provides for about twenty minutes of deleted scenes and dailies is likewise companionable but unhelpful. The best of the cut scenes is a dream sequence wherein Addy's character imagines himself a fiery sword-wielding paladin. A theatrical trailer that nicely demonstrates what a studio does when it doesn't have any idea how to market a film rounds out the presentation. Originally published: February 23, 2004.
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