by Jay Stringer
It seems appropriate for today’s film that I start with a confession.
This isn’t a horror film. I think it wants to be. I think at the heart of a lot of Brian Helgeland’s work is a longing for 70’s cinema, and I think he wanted this to be a spooky 70’s character piece. And that’s close enough to fit the horror season here at Matinee Idles.
Here’s a second confession. I have a soft spot for Helgeland’s films. Sure, everyone has a soft spot for L.A. CONFIDENTIAL. And he’s been attached to some wretched projects in his time. But through it all, I see something worth persevering with. Buried away beneath the whitewash that was THE POSTMAN were the early drafts where Costner’s character was a liar. Buried away in the empty thriller CONSPIRACY THEORY is an interesting little indie film that would have played with some dark ideas. The remake of THE TAKING OF PELHAM 123, in itself a longing for the 70’s, was as well intentioned as it was slick. The film plays with a few nice ideas without ever managing to touch the wit, charm or tension of the original.
It’s fun to give A KNIGHT’S TALE a good kicking; it was a youthful film with a silly soundtrack and a corny plot. But it had some fun performances in it, and it was never pretending to be Chaucer, it just pretended to have Chaucer in it.
The real reason I have such a strong interest in Helgeland as both a writer and director is PAYBACK. There is no measure by which the theatrical release is a good film. It’s too long, it’s too lightweight, it has a needless beginning and a stupid ending. Oh, and it’s blue. I imagine it’s the sort of film that they watch on Pandora, or whatever the stupid AVATAR planet is called. That and BLUE VELVET. Maybe the Smurfs movie, too, when it comes out.
But there is something else at play, and we got to see it.PAYBACK: Straight Up is a mean little film. It’s tight, amoral and brutal. It’s the most faithful screen adaptation of a Parker novel, and one of the few occasions in the past twenty years when Mel Gibson has shown anything of interest. It doesn’t have a beginning that explains everything, it doesn’t have a voice over that cracks wise, and it doesn’t have a studio ending tacked on. Oh, and the dog dies, great huh?
So based on his original version of that movie, in addition to L.A. CONFIDENTIAL and the vague feeling that his hearts in the right place, I’ll check out anything he does.
Which, unfortunately, meant checking out THE ORDER.
As I said right at the top, this is a film that wants to be a spooky 70’s style exploration of, well, something or other. I’m not sure if it’s about love, redemption or faith. The film doesn’t seem to know, and god only knows (haha) what the cast were thinking it was about. Maybe it was truly about nothing, an exploration of the battle between institutions and nihilism. But then again I could be giving it way too much credit.
Lets look for the positives first. Although Helgeland’s direction can sometimes be a little lifeless, I find a lot to like in all three of his efforts so far. He has a simple and uncluttered style, not dependent on fast camera moves and rapid cuts. He’s not afraid to frame a wide shot, or to let the camera settle on an actors emotions. I also really like the simple palette he relies on for his lighting and his colours. Nothing is overdone, nothing is flashy. In both THE ORDER and PAYBACK; Straight Up the world has a simple and lived in look. I like unobtrusive filmmaking tricks like these; it allows the acting and the writing to shine.
As I said before, the film doesn’t seem to know what it is really about. This becomes clear the more you try and concentrate on the plot. Each time you really scrutinise one plot twist, then all of the others start to look stupid.
If we strip out all of the supernatural elements, all of the sound effects, the not-very-spooky children and the ancient parchments, what we are left with is a conspiracy movie that’s dressed up as a murder mystery.
And it doesn’t matter how much your film plays with the supernatural, or how distracting Mark Addy’s attempt atIrishman is, a mystery needs to make sense. Once the truth is discovered, we need to see that A sort of leads to C via B. And if there’s a conspiracy involved, it needs to be there for a reason.
And after two viewings, I still can’t get the plot to make sense. You remember how the plot ofMETROPOLIS involves a dictator plotting to end civil unrest by causing civil unrest? Well THE ORDER follows that kind of logic.
An old priest, and older priest and an even older demon-thing want to convince Heath Ledger’s Alex to take over and become the new demon-thing. So, do they ask him? Do they sit down with him and explain how this is a sacred duty that confirms god exists and helps to fulfil an important role in the universe? No. They decide to trick him. For this to happen the old priest needs to wear bondage gear and the older priest needs to die.
At this point I really am thinking that a brief chat over a cup of tea and a biscuit might have been the way to go.
The next stage of the plan involves the demon-thing convincing Alex that he doesn’t want to be a priest, he’d much rather be a full-blooded man and have some of the sex with Shannyn Sossamon. I don’t find that part of the plan too hard to believe, but clearly none of the conspirators understand how this sort of thing works; did they really think that the way to get a man to commit his life to an immortal mission is to let him see how great it is to be a mortal?
So once foolproof Plan A fails, they then have to resort toPlan B. And when I say ‘they’ please remember that the three conspirators are now reduced to two, because one of them had to die as part of Plan A. So they now resort to murdering Shannyn Sossamon, who had managed to hop on an international flight despite being on the run from the authorities in New York, and making it look like a suicide so that Alex would eat her sin.
That last sentence was the most fun I’ve ever had.
But waitaminute Alex is eating her sin, and she didn’t commit suicide, so he’ll know she was murdered. Andwaitanotherminute that means that he confronts the demon-thing and kills it out of revenge. Butwaitanotherminuteagain that’s all some sort of trick, and Alex becomes the new demon-thing.
And while this epic confrontation goes on, which involves a man covered in blood holding a knife in a church in the Vatican, the tourists just watch. All the other priests justwatch. And given that the Vatican has its own security and military forces, I can only assume that they, too, grabbed some popcorn and gathered round to watch.
The script at this point has just scratched its head and gone, “movies, huh?”
After all of this, maybe we could just decide that the whole thing was indeed all part of the plan. That everything had to happen in that way for Alex to become the demon-thing, and that it’s all one big comic book origin. It’s a very big maybe, but let’s give it a chance, okay?
The one remaining conspirator, who is played byRobocop, is surprised when Alex exposes his secrets. It’s as if it never crossed his mind that the man he just manipulated and betrayed might decide to tell people about it. We are dealing with a real genius here. Off screen I think he was probably telling his friend in a futuristic city to make a robot turn into a woman and cause a rebellion in order to stop a rebellion. Makes sense, right?
So this Bad Example is really quite simple. Nothing else in the film matters. Not the occasional nice bit of sound editing. Not the interesting cast. Not the not-at-all-scary scary children. The CGI. The moral questions. Forget the attempts to look at sanity and love, and the fragility of it all. None of those things matter, because the basic plot just does not make sense.
Basic story telling 101: Does your story hold water? In a film with elements of crime, horror or insanity, you can get away with having a couple of things happen for no reason. That can be a very effective way of unsettling the audience and making the film feel real. But if the whole film happens for no reason, then you haven’t told a story.