The Order

The Order gave me one nice thing to take with me: the observation that sunflowers look like they have “crooked teeth around a mouth that’s too big.” They do, at that. Kudos to writer/director Brian Helgeland (this is his third movie, after the enjoyable Payback and A Knight’s Tale) for pointing that out. I wish more of The Order had stayed with me; cleverly written and stylishly mounted as it is, it’s the latest example of post-millennial religious film noir (see also: Stigmata, End of Days, The Ninth Gate), and there’s little suspense in it, and fewer laughs. Well, there is one reference to The Mod Squad, and kudos again to Helgeland for including a joke hardly anyone in the film’s demographic will get.

Helgeland apparently liked three of the stars of A Knight’s Tale — Heath Ledger, Shannyn Sossamon, and Mark Addy — so much that he employs all of them again here (the sarcastic Paul Bettany is missed, though). Ledger is Father Alex Bernier, who belongs to an ancient, and rapidly dwindling, order of priests. He’s in love with unstable painter Mara (Sossamon), who once put a bullet in him (ah, those artistic types) and who authors the sunflower observation when sitting quietly with Alex (who, one assumes, has frisked her first). Alex’s buddy from the order, Thomas (Addy, in another of his amiably beefy performances), has the same lax attitude towards celibacy that Tom Wilkinson did in Priest. Shadowy forces are converging around this trio, possibly having something to do with a church higher-up played by Peter Weller’s skull. Uh, I mean Peter Weller. Give the poor man a sandwich.

Alex is visited by “demon spawn” in the shape of watchful children, who turn up every so often for spookiness. The demon spawn were hanging out with Alex’s old mentor, who has died; Alex determines to get to the bottom of the death, ruled as a suicide (ah, but it’s never suicide in these movies). His path brings him into contact with one William Eden (Benno Fürmann, from Tom Tykwer’s excellent The Princess and the Warrior), whose function is to eat the sins of excommunicated Catholics. Come again? Yes, he’s the legendary Sin Eater, defined by as “a man who (according to a former practice in England) for a small gratuity ate a piece of bread laid on the chest of a dead person, whereby he was supposed to have taken the sins of the dead person upon himself.” Good work if you can get it, I suppose.

The movie, which by the way was originally called The Sin Eater, is most interesting when it explores the once-titular character’s unique difficulties (immortality, the pressure of knowing everyone’s secret sins). Helgeland writes William (and Fürmann plays him) as an entity neither good nor evil; he just is. His actions serve a higher, not always cheerful purpose. William, who’s been around for centuries sucking up other people’s disgraces and atrocities, is getting tired and looking for a replacement; he has his eye on Alex, who has qualms about the profession (do you get dental coverage?). Everything to do with William and Alex’s quiet battle of wills is fine; it’s when Helgeland broadens his scope to the arcane doings of a mysterious sect (the scenes feel like leftovers from Eyes Wide Shut, without the topless women) that the movie feels vague and padded. Helgeland also tries to mask the identity of the sect’s leader by covering his face, which might work if we also covered our ears.

I didn’t mind The Order; somewhere in there is an intriguing idea. I still have trouble buying Heath Ledger as a lead actor, especially here when he faces a heavy loss and has a blubbering fit to rival Julianne Moore in Far from Heaven. Benno Fürmann, however, is the real thing, a physical actor with a fine camera face and a manner that tells you he’s seen a lot and isn’t going to tell you about it. If Helgeland had made a movie called The Sin Eater and stuck with the trials of William Eden, a beleaguered immortal dealing with everyone else’s bad karma and trying to fob the job off onto some brooding priest, he might’ve made my kind of movie; unfortunately, my kind of movie so rarely gets greenlighted.

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