Any movie in which a dreamboat actor has to stand around in priest’s robes, looking as if he didn’t care about, you know, worldly things, is generally damned from the start. In Brian Helgeland’s The Order, a religioso thriller that’s short on activity and long on the murky metaphysics of sin, Heath Ledger acts even gloomier than Richard Chamberlain did in ”The Thorn Birds” or Christopher Reeve in ”Monsignor,” and his misery is matched by that of the audience: The picture is so lethargic that I began to think of watching it as a form of atonement.
The times may be ripe for a movie that plumbs the troubled heart of the Catholic Church, but ”The Order,” with its somber bombast and supernatural chintz, is like ”The Exorcist” without exorcism. Scrolls and omens, stigmata and suicide — it’s a midnight mass of ecclesiastical kitsch, complete with lines like ”Sometimes, when you look into the abyss, the abyss looks back into you.” Ledger, investigating the death of his mentor, who trained him in the ways of a Catholic order so arcane that he can even speak Aramaic, is drawn into the orbit of a ”sin eater.” This gobbler of the forbidden literally swallows the transgressions of dying souls, granting ”forgiveness for the unforgivable.” That the blobs of sin, erupting from people’s chests, look like flying squid made entirely of vermicelli noodles doesn’t exactly make the prospect as unsettling as it’s meant to be.
The sin eater is played by Benno Fürmann, who has steely eyes, an elegant clipped beard, and a vague Continental accent that give him the air of a very chic nightclub bouncer. He outacts Heath Ledger without trying, but then Ledger, scraping bottom, needs a new agent, or something. He was a true star in ”A Knight’s Tale” (also directed by Helgeland), buckling the swash with leonine abandon, but he mopes through ”The Order” looking more glumly dutiful than any altar boy. Here, as in last year’s misbegotten remake of ”The Four Feathers,” Ledger seems to have forgotten that taking a role seriously doesn’t mean relinquishing your actor’s joy. ”The Order” is worse than dull. It’s a reminder that when it comes to religion, Hollywood, more and more, is only too eager to exploit the tinniest of thrills, abdicating the topicality that would make for actual drama.