[box cover]

The Order

At long last, writer/director Brian Helgeland has brought us the first religious procedural on the heretofore hush-hush practice of Catholic sin-eating. A sort of end-run around absolution, the process requires an aptly monikered "Sin Eater" to hoover out of the dying all of their earthly misdeeds, which, when dealing exclusively with Catholic priests, can often be a real mouthful. Once the eater has swallowed every last bit of sin, their client is then allowed to pass on to the afterlife free of guilt, as well as the knowledge of ever having felt said guilt. As explained by a character early on in The Order (2003), even Hitler could've been heaven-bound with the assistance of an eater. There've been loopier concepts in the supernatural thriller genre (90 percent of which can be found in Exorcist II: The Heretic), and with the right balance of solemnity and crowd-pleasing scares, this premise might've allowed for a moody little thriller. Unfortunately, Helgeland is drunk on his own pseudo-profundity, which has emboldened him to write ridiculously protracted and maddeningly pretentious exchanges between his titular transgression diner and the rogue priest, Alex Bernier (Heath Ledger), who serves as the film's sulky protagonist. Before the film bogs down in its own strained seriousness, it almost works as a whodunit, as Bernier is called to Rome to investigate the apparent suicide of the excommunicated priest who was the head of his order, only to find that he was murdered as the part of some bizarre religious ceremony. Following Bernier to Rome for reasons that never make a whole lot of sense is Mara (Shannyn Sossamon), the beautiful-yet-troubled young lass who tried to kill the young priest while he was performing an exorcism. Rounding out their sleuthing trio is Thomas (Mark Addy), a fellow priest from Bernier's order whose knowledge of the darker sects threatening to seize control of the Vatican allows them to get closer to the horrible truth of the Sin Eater. Adding to the intrigue is the shadowy bishop Driscoll (a startlingly aged Peter Weller), whose allegiances are highly suspect, especially since its his voice that's so obviously emanating from behind the black hood of the leader of the underground order that provides Bernier and Thomas with clues about the fate of their departed mentor. Had Helgeland been content to focus on the Vatican power-struggle — which, if lost, could set off a 21st century crusade — the film would've at least had a dramatic immediacy, given the near-death state of the current pontiff. But he's most interested in the idea of total, unearned forgiveness — a theme that doesn't come close to resonating given Bernier's curious youth. If the casting of Ledger was a commercial concession, it's at least understandable, but it does rob the picture of a built-in worldliness that might've been supplied by an older, more authoritative actor (not that Gabriel Byrne's presence made Stigmata that much more palatable). Mostly, the movie feels directionless and a little threadbare, the latter quality being the potential result of the troubled production history that kept this project on the shelf for well over a year. There's little doubt that Helgeland's a talented writer, but, as with the goofy A Knight's Tale, he's strayed too far from his assured storytelling sensibilities by freighting his little genre film with top-heavy gimmickry. Fox presents The Order in both anamorphic (1.85:1) and full-frame transfers, with decent Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Extras include a feature-length commentary from Helgeland that simmers with a slight undercurrent of resentment toward the studio, deleted scenes and dailies (with optional commentary from Helgeland), and the theatrical trailer. Keep-case.
—Clarence Beaks

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