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The Order
Reviewed by Jason Myers and Andrew Kozma, © 2003

Format: Movie
By:   Brian Helgelend (writer/director)
Genre:   Supernatural thriller
Released:   September 5, 2003
Review Date:   September 12, 2003
Audience Rating:   R
RevSF Rating:   6/10 (What Is This?)

Jason Myers: Nowadays, people like their religion to be as boring as possible. Once upon a time, religion dealt with the supernatural. Now, religion is rational, modern, logical. I'm not making a judgment as to whether this transition is a good thing or a bad thing. But I do know this: If, at the local church picnic, someone started speaking in tongues or casting out demons, people wouldn't feel awe or fear, they'd just be downright embarrassed. Here in more enlightened times, we'd like it if God stayed up in heaven where He (or She, or It) belongs, thank you very much.

Which is why Catholics fascinate me. Because Catholics, as far as I can figure, are still in touch with the mysteries of religion. Not only do they have saints, they have criteria for which new saints can be inducted, and, according to that short-lived show Miracles, people who go around making sure that no fake saints can get past the rigorous saint-screening process: Vatican CSI: Catholic Saint Investigators. If I recall properly, Catholics also believe in transubstantiation, the idea that when they take Communion, the wafer becomes the body of Christ. Actually. Not symbolically, but actually.

Andrew Kozma: And the wine becomes the blood. Yes, we're blood drinkers. Vampires. Vampyr. Nosferatu. Gretchen. And you thought Catholics were persecuted just because they persecuted everyone else during the Inquisition.

Jason: NOBODY expects the Spanish Inquisition. Anyway, if you're a non-Catholic and you've never heard of transubstantiation, it's probably because Catholics are tired of being laughed at by Protestants, Jews, atheists, and, well, pretty much everyone except agnostics.

Which brings us to The Order. Twentieth Century Fox, after delaying the release date, tinkering with the special effects, and changing the title from The Sin Eater to The Order, just sort of dumped it into the theater with as little fanfare and promotion as possible. Clearly they had no idea what to do with this odd, hunchbacked supernatural thriller. It's too ponderous for the Jeepers Creepers crowd, and too chock-full of B-movie hokum for lovers of post-Sixth Sense slow-burners. And plus, it's just so Catholic. The usual Catholic stuff (the mechanics of confession, the responsibilities of being a priest, the potential for abuse of power when the Church becomes a more central figure than God) is amped up by what one character calls "the unsanitized church." Legendary supernatural creatures, malfeasant manifestations, and dangerous knowledge scrawled on dusty parchment.

Is The Order a morally ambiguous meditation on faith and sin? Or is it a creaky sub-Exorcist potboiler? Why can't it be both?

Andrew: Well, maybe it can. Let's start our dissection and see what underlies the celluloid body...

Cool opening to the movie . . . in that it starts slow and moody, almost like a 60s horror film, and shows the ruins of Rome in a way that sets the tone for the movie -- a view into a world that is decaying. After that, though, we are presented with nearly twenty minutes of backstory and setup that is pretty jerkingly cut together. Meaning that, really, I couldn't get caught up in the movie until a half hour had passed.

Jason: I liked the opening half hour. Most of it was exposition, but it was thrown at you in such a way that you were left thinking, "Who are these people? What's going on here?" You could attribute it to poor structure, but I thought of it more as building a mystery. With most movies, you can see exactly where a movie's headed within the first five minutes. I appreciated the challenge.

Andrew: Side note: At first I thought that the female lead was a little too stylish for a mental patient, but then she wears the same clothing throughout the movie, so I guess there is some concession to realism. Unfortunately, though, she is very cool . . .

Jason: Cool like Luke's hand? Cool like lemonade on a hot day? Cool like the Fonz?

Andrew: . . . She is also just a foil to get Alex to speak. The first ten or so minutes of conversation after she is introduced lies in her saying a variation of "So what do you think about that?"

By the way, whoever the cardinal is sucks as an actor, at least in this movie. Too much smarmishness to begin with.

Jason: Dude, aside from one line -- and name me one master thespian who could convincingly utter the phrase "Warrior Pope" -- Peter Weller (Naked Lunch, Robocop) did a bang-up job.

Andrew: Actually, I think it's the character I have a problem with. [SPOILER] His role is suspicious from the beginning. Almost as bad, but not quite, as Louis Cyphre in Angel Heart.

There are also subjects and characters that seem relatively irrelevant to the film, even though the film introduces them otherwise. When mention that "the dark pope is rising" comes early in the film, should we expect that to be a major part of the film? One that comes up like the Death Star in Star Wars?

Jason: First off, I'm pretty sure that the phrase that's used is "a rising dark power". Secondly, yes, you're right. It's meant to be exactly like the Death Star. Exactly. What is your current blood-alchohol level?

Andrew: But, reall, shparts of this movie are jush plain, well, extr-extran-ext -- unnecessary. So someone gets dunked in water. So someone gets pierced with nails. If this were a Disney movie I'd say that those scenes were there only to provide fodder for the expected video game version.

Jason: Or more like, "Hey, wouldn't it be creepy if this happened?" "Why does it happen?" "Who cares? It happens because it's creepy."

Andrew: William Eaten. Or Eten. Or Etan. Or some derivative . . . anyway, a lame, lame name.

Jason: Eden.

Andrew: Yeah, well, granted, that's slightly better. Sheesh, always gotta show me up. . . .

Back to the film dissection: I have to say that the movie seems confused in its plot and its aims.

Jason: I guess one man's "confused" is another man's ambiguous. Part of what I liked about The Order was that it didn't always telegraph exactly how we were supposed to feel about something. During several key scenes, I found myself wondering, "Is Alex (the priest) taking the path to redemption, or damnation?"

Andrew: Whereas I always felt it was obvious which of those he was headed for. What I mean by confusion is that the movie itself seems to be unsure how it wants us to feel (even if that desired feeling is "ambiguity") in regards to the villain and Alex, and especially them together.

The film makers obviously want there to be tension between the villain and the hero, but there's not. Why? Because the manipulation of the writer/director is too much in view, and not in a cool Bunraku way. There is no effort to develop this tension, to really develop the temptation that is the core of the film. The temptation is glossed.

Jason: Again, I think it's about making the tension less obvious. Ambiguous. Who is the villain, really? And as for temptations, there are several in the film. Love, power, knowledge. The temptation to ignore evil. The temptation to accept what you are told. The temptation to play God.

Andrew: For me that all goes by the wayside once Alex takes Eden's first advice to heart.

The editing is done in such a manner that I thought, really, that the latter half of the movie was a dream, a la [Name of Movie Removed to Protect the Innocent]. Oh yeah, and I'm sorry if I spoiled that movie for you.

Jason: Yeah, thanks a lot. Ass-head.

Ass-head: You're welcome. Jerkface.

Jerkface: Back to an earlier point, Alex doesn't take Eden's advice.


I mean, he does decide to play capture the bishop with Mara. But that's advice that his friend Thomas gave him as well. And he ignores the rest of what Eden offers. So every step along the way could be the road to heaven or the road to hell. Is it wrong of Alex to choose love over the church? Or is he choosing lust over God? Maybe Alex giving up the priesthood was the right decision, even though Eden mucked it up. Or maybe the movie is playing on the idea that the path that seems right in the eyes of man is not necessarily the right path in the eyes of God. After Mara and Alex have sex, the temptations multiply. But there don't seem to be obvious answers. Is it wrong of Alex to attempt to ignore the sin-eater and skip happily into the sunset? When Alex believes that Mara has committed suicide, is it wrong of him to want to eat Mara's mortal sin? Not to mention, is it wrong of Thomas to seek knowledge from evil sources in order to combat evil?

On that front, are we supposed to believe that the sin-eater is evil? Or that it's just that Eden has used his power for evil? Are we supposed to think of the sin-eater as "God's beautiful mistake" (like Mara's sunflowers), or as an abomination that should be destroyed? Is the sin-eater defying the will of God, or providing a way to break the monopoly that the Catholic church seems to have on the gates to eternity? What's the line between the laws of man and the laws of God? If, as Alex says at the end, (paraphrasing) "The power doesn't come from the priest. It comes from the confession," then is the sin-eater even necessary? Also, would Thomas be right in trying to kill Alex, as he intimates he might? In the end, is Alex God's instrument, or does he just think he is?

Here's a question. During William Eden's big sin-eating scene, the sin comes out the guy's chest, and Eden literally swallows it. But when Alex tries to eat Mara's sins, the tendrils rise a bit from her body, but at the last minute, before she dies, Mara grabs Alex, and the tendrils retreat back into her body. It's like Mara purposely held that part of herself back from Alex (maybe in an attempt to prevent him from making a big spiritual boo-boo). Did I infer that correctly?

Ass-head: Maybe. I somewhat thought the same thing but allowed the movie('s seeming) logic to override my reservations.

Jerkface: If Mara held back her sin from Alex, then when Alex confronts Eden, he's lying about having knowledge of her sins, because he wants Eden to think that his trap has worked.

If that's true, then there are two ways of becoming a sin-eater. Performing the ritual successfully (which Alex didn't do), and using the dagger. Eden had a plan A, plan B, and plan C. Plan A: Get Alex to use the dagger on him, and so become a sin-eater by accident. Plan B: Get Alex to agree willingly to become a sin-eater, by (as Satan did to Jesus) offering him the world. Plan C: Trick Alex into performing the ritual, and becoming a sin-eater.

Either the film-makers are confused, as you've said, or William Eden is wicked brilliant.

Ass-head: Or both. That's my preference. But, really, the dagger has to be a possibility, otherwise Eden was risking death in the first confrontation and/or Alex knowing that it was a set-up.

Jerkface: There was one thing that did annoy the hell out of me: I didn't feel like Thomas, once he knew the whole story, tried hard enough to keep Alex from confronting Eden. I mean, sure, he couldn't talk on account of major rope burn, but couldn't he have held Alex down until he recovered enough to explain?

Ass-head: I agree completely. And by that I mean absolutely. Which is another way of saying, You are definitely correct in your summation, oh great master of filmic analysis.

Also, for me, the fact that the romance between Alex and Mara seems tacked on is a major problem for the overall arc of the film. Not that the romance, really, is unnecessary (though there could have certainly been a really good movie about Carolingian Priests without it) but that it is given so little time to develop. As an audience, we are expected to swallow the romantic attachment and the importance of this love as a given.

Lastly, although the movie doesn't let us know anything along these lines until it is necessary for the plot, apparently the Sin Eater has powers other than eating sins. (Which, in the world of the movie, is pretty big. It's the ability to sidestep God.) So, at the time that Mara is to die, the Sin Eater gains the power of teleportation (like any other good horror villain) so she can't escape and then somehow fixes her death, although we don't witness how. In fact, it would've been better if this murder scene had never been shown at all, but was actually presented as a real mystery for the audience to figure out along with Alex. As it is, after that point, all is foreordained and relatively unexciting.


As to the film's purpose I have to say: Hollywood. Everything in Hollywood is explained (unless it's by David Lynch). And following Hollywood's current big sellers, there is some slow motion at the end of The Order that puts the whole picture into the realm of comic book movies. Why, oh why can't we just have a relatively low-key horror film?

Jerkface: I swear we were watching two different movies. I thought that one of . . .

Ass-head: I was watching Freddy vs. Jason. What were you watching?

Jerkface: . . . The Order's saving graces was that it was a relatively low-key horror film. There were no big monsters, no buckets of blood, no cartoon horror deaths, no elaborately choreographed fights, no extended chase sequences, no special-effects extravaganzas, and very few jump-out-and-go-"boo" scares.

Ass-head says: Oh, um, well, since we're talking about The Order and not that other film, I have to admit something. In truth, I enjoyed watching the movie. It does a good job of creating another world and throwing us into it. When Freddy, I mean Thomas, takes you to the Satanic rave you'll understand. And, yes, this movie does answer the question as to why those creepy children are always hanging out under your bed.

Jerkface says: Those creepy children are a damn nuisance. Still, they do scare away the dustbunnies.

Strangely, both Ass-head and Jerkface give The Order a rating of: 6 out of 10.
Jerkface is RevSF's Film/DVD Editor. Ass-head is a published poet. We don't know what publications his poetry appears in, because, well, poetry sucks. Okay, we admit that we bash poetry to cover our embarrassment over the fact that, before RevSFers discovered science fiction, we mostly had secret meetings in caves where we drank wine, played bongos, and read aloud from the works of William Carlos Williams, Keats, John Donne, and Shel Silverstein.

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