Neb Nilpahc plays a faithless skeptic marked as Satan’s own; Anoniw Redyr the tremulous believer who prays for him in Lost Souls. Oh wait, that’s Ben Chaplin and Winona Ryder, boobytrapped by backward letters, cabalistic numeric codes, and an absence of plot intelligibility in a drama of demonic possession that’s all signs, no wonders. Chaplin is Peter Kelson, author of several true-crime bestsellers, who claims there’s no such thing as evil with a capital E. Ryder is Maya Larkin, who knows better, because she herself is an exorcism success story, now a joylessly devout Catholic dishrag intermittently troubled by phantasms and a heavy hand with the eye shadow.
The deep questions Lost Souls asks are these: Can Maya save Peter? Does the devil flourish in the absence of a belief in God? Was screenwriter Pierce Gardner, previously a producer, struck dumb by repeated viewings of The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, and Kim Basinger in Bless the Child? But decipherable editorial positions, let alone answers, don’t follow — not when there’s so much more mileage to be had from staging the inexplicable torments suffered by Father Lareaux (John Hurt, who is no Max von Sydow). Still, in its darkest hour, the movie is saved from total hell by the sensuous visual instincts of the accomplished cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan), making his directorial debut. For every blathery line of dialogue (”Somebody up there likes you,” his brother tells Peter after saving his sibling by snapping the neck of a would-be assassin in the middle of a fancy party. ”Thanks, bro,” is Peter’s psalm of gratitude), there’s an image of disembodied cinematic loveliness in search of a suitable plot. (Clusters, Kaminski likes clusters, particularly of women in head scarves, little girls in parochial tartans, and Japanese ladies in kimonos.)
I can’t fathom the R rating assigned to Lost Souls — far from being frightening or brutal or harrowing, as an exorcism thriller ought to be, it’s silly, undone by lack of faith in its own subject. Then again, there is a moment of violence visited on a giant crucifix in a prettily lit church as the battle between Heaven and Hell heats up: The figure of Christ suddenly looses from his cross, plummets, and dangles by one foot so that upside-down Jesus appears to be playing peekaboo with a terrified visitor. The ensuing audience laughter is, I submit, a gift from God. D+