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(2003) (Heath Ledger, Shannyn Sossamon) (R)

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Horror: A renegade priest sets out to investigate his mentor's death and uncovers a conspiracy in the church as well as a figure known as the Sin Eater who absorbs the sins of others.
Alex (HEATH LEDGER) is a NYC priest who practices a rare form of Catholicism that's left the church, represented by Cardinal Driscoll (PETER WELLER), confused about how to deal with him. When he hears that the head of his order, Father Dominic (FRANCESCO CARNELUTTI), has died, Alex sets off for Rome.

He asks former priest and friend Thomas (MARK ADDY) to meet him there and brings along Mara (SHANNYN SOSSAMON), a woman who's escaped from a mental institution. She was there due to previously having tried to kill him around the time he performed an exorcism on her, but he's nevertheless attracted to her, a point that only exacerbates his confused state of mind.

Once in Rome, Alex begins to investigate Dominic's death and doesn't believe he committed suicide as others state. As he and Thomas dig deeper into the matter, they soon come across William Eden (BENNO FÜRMANN). He's a mysterious, immortal figure known as a Sin Eater who takes it upon himself to absolve those who've been shunned by the Church.

As they uncover additional unsettling facts, Alex soon realizes that they've stumbled upon a conspiracy in the highest levels of the Catholic church that involve him in ways he never could have expected.

OUR TAKE: 3 out of 10
Considering the current sorry state of most offerings in the horror genre, you have to appreciate when a film comes along that doesn't star Jason, Freddy or Mike Myers (no, not Austin Powers) and/or isn't specifically targeted at the MTV mindset of certain teenage viewers.

Of course, while goofy, campy or just plain dumb and/or idiotic horror flicks are usually cut quite a bit of slack in terms of realism, their more "serious" brethren usually have higher standards that they must meet to be deemed a success.

Thus, filmmakers of such offerings often repeatedly visit the same sub-genres for their source material. They include the "realistic" serial killer tale ("Silence of the Lambs"), the extraterrestrial threat (the "Alien" films) and the old standby, those based on or dealing with some aspect of religion (including the granddaddy of them all, "The Exorcist").

Writer/director and producer Brian Helgeland ("A Knight's Tale," "Payback") raids that third category with his offering, "The Order." Originally titled "The Sin Eater" and reportedly sitting on the shelf for some time after a bout of unsuccessful test screenings and apparently hokey rather than scary-looking special effects, the film was released with little fanfare and no advance screenings for the press.

That usually means that the releasing studio - in this case, 20th Century Fox - didn't have any faith (pun fully intended) in it. Having seen the offering, I can say that they obviously don't have a great or even good film on their hands. Nevertheless, the cold opening was a bit strange since the film certainly isn't an abomination and is easier to tolerate than any number of other films that we do get to see ahead of time.

Loosely based on supposed real life but obscure dealings in the Catholic Church, the film has an intriguing hook. If one has been excommunicated and can't receive confession or their last rites, what is one supposed to do to get into Heaven? Well, you shouldn't call Ghostbusters just yet, but rather the sin eater who absolves such a person of their sins by literally consuming them.

With that notion injected into an apparent murder mystery plot of sorts - where a reengage priest investigates his former mentor's death - Helgeland starts off with a decent and interesting premise. Unfortunately, most of it's squandered by poor and malformed subplots, a deadly slow place and a glaring absence of any genuine scares.

The world will never know if earlier incarnations of the script worked better. The final product certainly feels overdone (as if from too many cooks in the kitchen) yet still raw. Perhaps with different eyeballs, minds and hands on the piece, the various elements might have jelled into something more cohesive and/or thrilling.

Among the various jumbled elements is a love angle subplot between the priest character played by Heath Ledger ("The Four Feathers," "Monster's Ball") and his former costar in "A Knight's Tale," Shannyn Sossamon ("The Rules of Attraction," "40 Days and 40 Nights"). To complicate matters even further, she's just escaped from a mental institution where she was being held for previously trying to kill him around the time he performed an exorcism on her.

Yet, he allows her to travel to Rome with him since he has conflicting feelings toward her. Phew, that's a lot of soap opera suds to swallow, and little of it rings true or works for what follows (even the obligatory sex scene feels forced).

Another subplot features Peter Weller ("Screamers," "Robocop") as an American Cardinal who's gung-ho for the ailing Pope's throne. That's somehow connected to a subterranean cult where people are hanged apparently so that they'll give out important clues before they pass on (since the dying are obviously known for doing so). None of that remotely works and all of that could and should have been jettisoned.

The most intriguing plot element features Benno Fürmann ("The Princess and the Warrior," "Wolfsburg") as the sin eater, an immortal being somewhat akin to a vampire (in that he feeds off others and can't be killed). Notwithstanding the visual eating of another's sins - that reeks of similar moments in "The Green Mile" and still looks hokey despite the apparently reconfigured special effects - the moments where he tries to persuade and then force Alex to be his heir apparent have some promise.

Alas, the rest of the jumbled material - that includes a supporting part by Mark Addy ("The Time Machine," "The Full Monty") as the sidekick detective/priest/friend - along with Helgeland's inability to generate any real scares or suspense undermines that element.

Coupled with a glacial pace, the result is a mostly boring, flat and ultimately unsuccessful horror offering. While it gets some kudos for trying to be something more than a mindless slasher flick with cheap scares, "The Order" has too many demons of its own to earn a recommendation. It rates as a 3 out of 10.

Reviewed September 5, 2003 / Posted September 5, 2003

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