Movie review: 'The Order'

2 stars (out of 4)

Gothic horror films that exploit religious dogma, particularly Catholicism, are almost a sub-genre, with "The Exorcist" and "The Omen" still the standard bearers. Brian Helgeland's "The Order" zealously follows in their wake, with baroque images and all manner of metaphoric mayhem, from brandished crosses to dead-of-night secret burials in windstorms. The writer of "L.A. Confidential" is too talented to dismiss, but the film-convention savvy and originality he brought to his noir homage gets lost in the dark (literally) abyss of "The Order." Then again, Helgeland was also the scripter for the ill-fated "The Postman," another film not known for its subtlety.

The order is a tiny group of priests who adhere to arcane Catholicism: They believe in stigmata, exorcism, the Latin Mass and in a hush-hush ancient practice called "sin eating." When an old member of the sect is killed in Rome — the church claims his death is a suicide, which denies him a Christian burial — it falls to a pair of younger priests, Alex (Heath Ledger, reunited with Helgeland after "A Knight's Tale") and William (Benno Furmann) to investigate. They discover Thomas, an attractive sin eater (Mark Addy), a man whose mortality dates to the construction of St. Peter's Basilica. Bitter at the church for excommunicating his brother and denying him last rites, Thomas has become an avenging angel of sorts for the church's outcasts: He ingests the sins of the church's excommunicants and thus grants them absolution. This, of course, is not without its drawbacks. Not only must Thomas live for centuries, he must also carry the burden of untold sins. It's become a heavy load, and he's ready to pass the torch to another young and hunky rebel priest.

Sounds heady and intriguing. Too bad Helgeland didn't trust the story enough to make a small, theologically themed thriller (like, say, Asnieszka Holland's flawed but interesting "The Third Miracle"). Instead, Helgeland opts for an all-out horror fest with slasher film effects such as knives flying from walls, a goth dungeon where the priests witness a hanging and, most bizarre of all, a literal depiction of sin. Who knew it looked like a jellyfish as it swirls out of one soul before wrapping its tentacles around another?

With lines such as "I'm an insult to the church; an embarrassment" and "Sometimes when you look into the abyss, the abyss looks back at you," not to mention talk of priestly sex, excommunication, suicide and shoddy scaffolding during the building of St. Peter's that results in an industrial accident, "The Order" likely made more than a few people nervous, especially at a time when the Catholic Church is hardly eager to have its ancient embarrassments dredged up in a Hollywood movie. Could that have anything to do with dumping the film in theaters without screening it for the press beforehand? Possibly. Or maybe it was simply because "The Order" is schlock that could and should have been better.

"The Order"
Written and directed by Brian Helgeland; photographed by Nicola Pecorini; edited by Kevin Stitt; production design by Miljen "Kreka" Kljakovic; music by David Torn; produced by Helgeland, Craig Baumgarten. A Twentieth Century Fox release, opens Friday. Running time: 127 minutes. MPAA rating: R.
Alex Bernier ............... Heath Ledger
Mara Sinclair .............. Shannyn Sossamon
William Eden ............... Benno Furmann
Thomas ..................... Mark Addy
Driscoll ................... Peter Weller
Dominic .................... Francesco Carnelutti

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