In Commentary Tracks Of The Damned, we look to the commentary track to glean further insight on a failed film, be it a financial flop, a critical disappointment, or both.
The Order (2003)
- Ruining a perfectly entertaining B-movie about a renegade priest (Heath Ledger) and a “Sin Eater”—a sinister, shadowy figure who consumes the souls of sinners—with a dour tone and excessive pretension
- Wasting a rare, characteristically intense lead performance by Heath Ledger
- Taking a guilty-pleasure conceit in a direction in which no pleasure can be gleaned, guilty or otherwise
- Being less heretical than hokey and egregiously convoluted
Defender: Writer-director Brian Helgeland
Tone: Agonizingly dull. The commentary is so unrelentingly tedious that it comes close to invalidating the whole form with a feature-length blow-by-blow in which Helgeland seems to derive unseemly pleasure in never conveying anything even remotely of interest to anyone not currently inhabiting the mind and body of writer-director Brian Helgeland.
Making an international religious thriller in Rome with an Academy Award-winning screenwriter at the helm and a famously tortured, hard-living, future pop-culture icon as the star would seem to be an inherently fascinating, even transformative experience, but Helgeland’s clammy play-by-play suggests it was anything but. The writer-director, who picked up a richly deserved Academy Award for his screenplay for L.A. Confidential, alternates between dry technical details, ham-fisted explanations of whatever is happening onscreen, jokes so terrible they inspire pity rather than laughter, and enough references to his other films that Helgeland seems to be recording the track for the benefit of future scholars working on lengthy dissertations on his work. For example, he points out a shot that required 21 takes, which is eight takes more than the Steadicam shot from Payback, the previous record-holder for most takes in a Brian Helgeland movie.
Even when something genuinely compelling happens, like the production being robbed of $90,000 in per diem money just before filming began, Helgeland’s fumbling delivery renders it incongruously boring. The commentary suggests the pop-culture equivalent of being stranded at an awful party listening to some blowhard go on and on about some pastime that is of interest only to him. Only in this case the blowhard is an Oscar winner, and the tedious subject he’s droning on and on about is a goddamned Hollywood movie with Heath Ledger. How could a scenario as seemingly rife with adventure and larger-than-life figures have led to a commentary this dull?
At times, Helgeland is struck by the artifice and absurdity of the filmmaking process. A scene in a morgue, for example, causes him to wax philosophical about the strangeness of his chosen field, but not too philosophical: He muses aloud, “It’s probably a little silly that we’re shooting, playing around, making a movie in a morgue,” before finishing his observation with, “I guess I have no value judgment for it after that.”
Helgeland seems like an affable enough guy, but his commentary engenders the mounting irritation and visceral hostility that comes with listening to anyone talk for more than 100 minutes without ever saying anything interesting. When he ends the commentary by vowing to do another movie and another commentary, it feels like a threat rather than a promise. Helgeland unwittingly illustrates here why most folks simply don’t listen to audio commentaries.
What went wrong: Wrong? Nothing went wrong. Helgeland sounds a little nervous and self-conscious, but he never even hints that anything went even a little bit awry during the making or reception of the film.
Comments on the cast: Helgeland dwells extensively on the many commonalities between The Order and A Knight’s Tale, even going so far at one point to argue jokingly (or not; he’s so unfunny that it’s difficult to delineate between a failed joke and an honest statement) that the characters in The Order are reincarnated from the characters in A Knight’s Tale, including holdovers from the first film like Ledger, sidekick Mark Addy, and love interest Shannyn Sossamon. As in A Knight’s Tale, Helgeland wanted Ledger to be a rock star of his profession. In this case, that meant dressing him in lots of black to send out an appropriately priest-like vibe in a way that still “keeps the sex appeal of the character alive.” The director has surprisingly little to say about Ledger except to praise his brooding intensity for helping sell a patently ridiculous character. He does have ample praise for supporting player Peter Weller, though, whom he compliments for having the “movie-star pop” that makes it believable that his character could be elected Pope, because heaven knows if there’s one quality popes share, it’s that certain “movie-star pop” that is passed from sexy pontiff to sexy pontiff.
Inevitable dash of pretension: Helgeland describes himself as a genre writer who aspires to do for the genres he tackles what James Ellroy (whose work helped snag Helgeland that shiny trophy) did for crime fiction: elevate it to the level of art. He does not succeed. Helgeland talks throughout of Ledger’s arc as being representative of an archetypal hero’s journey, about the symbolic use of keys and flowers throughout the film, and how they echo the symbolism of A Knight’s Tale. Poetry figures prominently in the film. In an early draft of the script, the “Sin Eater” character lived through time and adopted many forms, including John Keats, whose poetry moves Helgeland to the point where he encourages anyone unfamiliar with him to turn off the audio commentary for The Order and run out and buy a compilation of Keats’ poems immediately. Better than the commentary for The Order? That is undoubtedly the highest praise Keats’ work has ever received (even beyond getting name-checked on The Smiths’ “Cemetry Gates”). Continuing a theme, Helgeland explains he wanted Ledger’s sexy priest to have a romantic-poet vibe like Keats and Shelley, but also, you know, sexy and with a rock-star quality to boot.
Commentary in a nutshell: The disconnect between the craziness onscreen and Helgeland’s clumsily matter-of-fact approach reaches an apogee when he observes of the onscreen action: “For some reason, things from beyond have a power over flashlight batteries, which, uh, I don’t make these rules up. I just follow them.”