The Order
Grade: B+
Year: 2003
Director: Brian Helgeland
Writer: Brian Helgeland
Genre: Mystery/Thriller
Rated: R
By Scott Spicciati

Brian Helgeland's "The Order" opened last Friday without any pre-screenings for critics. That was a bad sign for the movie because that action is usually taken when the studio doesn't want the imminent negative reviews to affect box-office sales. 20th Century Fox took a gamble and hoped that the film's premise and star-power would be enough to get people to see their newest religious thriller. Opening at #6 behind 5-week-old "S.W.A.T." shows the terminality of that decision. And to think, "The Order" is surprisingly a good movie.

Alex Bernier (Heath Ledger) is one of the few remaining priests belonging to the Carolingian, an order that recognizes the existence of spirits, the paranormal and Latin-only Mass. When Alex's mentor, Dominic (Francesco Carnelutti), a senior member of the Carolingians, is killed in Rome, Driscoll (Peter Weller), a Vatican cardinal, has arrived in from Rome to tell Alex personally. The church claims his death was a suicide, therefore denying him a Christian burial. "Shenanigans" cries Alex and his priest colleague Tom (Mark Addy). Together they leave New York and head for Rome to investigate the death of their friend that couldn't have possibly resulted from a suicide.

They soon meet Eden (Benno Fürmann), a Sin Eater with the answers Alex wants. I immediately became interested in the Sin Eater, a character who repents the sins of the damned, or unsaved and grants them absolution. This ritual involves a practice that eventually kills the subject, but I guess that's not a bad price to pay for a free ticket to Heaven. Was Dominic touched by the Sin Eater? If so, why?

Unfortunately for the Sin Eater, he keeps the sins that he "eats" and will suffer a damned eternal life unless he can delegate his job to a new candidate. And he's got plenty of time to do so, Sin Eaters live much longer than normal mortals, and this is shown through a story he tells Alex that dates to the construction of St. Peter's Basilica. As a child, he would watch his brother build the foundation of the church along with the other construction workers until a terrible tragedy has him dying on the floor. The priests have denied him his last rites and Eden can do nothing but hold his dying brother in his arms. From that moment, Eden became the Sin Eater and started saving the excommunicated. Now centuries old, Eden wants to retire and pass the important job onto Alex, who is understandably hesitant about the proposal.

So far so good. The plot is interesting and the details are eventually told as the film progresses, but I left out the silly parts that I will now mention. Before Alex departs for Rome he gets an unsuspecting visitor at his New York City apartment. She is Mara (Shannyn Sossamon), a sunflower-obsessed girl who just escaped from a mental hospital where she was serving time after trying to kill Alex when he performing a--sigh--exorcism on her. He immediately restores all trust in Mara and allows her to tag along to Rome. For what reason exactly? I suspect so the film has an excuse to throw in sexual tension, though Alex mentions somewhere that she has a natural ability to 'see things' for what they are, or something like that.

Special effects don't play a large role in the film, but when they surface I was able to pass the ghostly images of orphan children and the physical form of the "sins" that one critic described as looking like calamari. But at this time of year, movies that aren't heavily dependent on special effects are rare and welcome, plus a movie that doesn't require them so often, like say "The Matrix" does, shouldn't be judged too harshly on that.

The acting by the cast last seen together in "A Knight's Tale" is surprisingly better than expected. Ledger does a great job portraying a character who should be much older than him, and is able to express the right amount of emotion when necessary.

Written and directed by Brian Helgeland, "The Order" isn't a scary thriller the way it is advertised, but it's a well-told mystery and worth investing your interest in. Crafty cinematography by Nicola Pecorini constantly keeps the surroundings dark and gloomy. The grittiness adds a nice dated touch although you sometimes have to squint your eyes to see everything in the frame.

The silly parts of the plot are forgivable. The weak special effects are forgivable. The story works and the final twist surprisingly caught me off guard though it's by no means a complicated story. Still, I found the movie refreshing. "The Order" is one of the--if not most original movie of the year.

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© Copyright 2003. All rights reserved. Contact Editor: Scott Spicciati