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Histrionics hamper medieval mystery

The Reckoning is a medieval thriller for those who like to have their murders and courtroom dramas served up with plenty of barmaid decolletage and peevish friars.

The movie follows a group of Bergmanesque traveling players in their leather nipple vests and "Losing My Religion" accouterments as they roam the 14th-century English countryside.

The traveling players have just lost their master thespian, so his son Martin (Willem Dafoe) has taken command. A power struggle ensues when Martin agrees -- much to the chagrin of an elder actor -- to give shelter to priest Nicholas (Paul Bettany), who's fleeing from a charge of adulterizing the flock.

The actors decamp in a backwater town to perform their MTV-worthy Adam and Eve stage play. But the villagers are distracted by an ugly real-world drama unfolding in their midst.

A local boy has been strangled and the blame has fallen on the local deaf and mute woman, Martha (Elvira Minguez). Vaguely feminist notions are dished out -- like how women who practiced healing were once persecuted as criminals and witches by the clergy. So is some equally uninspired "subversive" sentiment about how organized religion is baaaad and art is gooood. Seems the local monk Simon Damian (Ewen Bremner) has got it in for the "touched" woman, who now languishes in an underground pit in the village prison.

Bremner is just one of many incongruities in this historical drama laced with contemporary American accents and Al Pacino "you're out of order! This whole court is out of order!" histrionics. With his hilariously goofball expressions, Bremner appears to be regurgitating his Trainspotting turn, while Dafoe is equally over the top. Dafoe in high seriousness mode trapped in a lousy film is almost as hard to bear as a ramrod serious Nicolas Cage.

The actors in The Reckoning are soon playing the crusaders-for-social-justice parts normally reserved for good cops and reporters in legal thrillers. Rather than acting out another religious drama for a disinterested audience, Martin strikes upon the idea of staging a play based on the story of the murdered child -- and maybe establishing the true killer to boot.

The actors strut and fret through their stagy true-crime Movie of the Week and lead the town to find the real criminals. Unfortunately, an eternity passes before the unnecessarily complicated true crime is revealed.

In general, The Reckoning's attempts at political significance are garbled and tangential. More than demonstrating awareness of the power struggles of history, the subtext shows that if there's a possibility of suggesting some half-baked political consciousness, then The Reckoning will go after it with a cockeyed vengeance. This movie wants to say something, it just isn't sure what.

One of the film's biggest problems -- and there are many -- in maintaining any moral integrity is how over the course of the film, the sniveling, defrocked priest who's been kicked out of Dodge with his willy between his legs is suddenly transformed into the Uber-righteous Decent Guy trying to save Martha from the hangman's noose.

Only the most naive viewer will fail to guess the connection between the young murder victim and his murderer. By the film's end, all dramatic threads are neatly sewn up and any hint of period mystery has evaporated, leaving the viewer with just another legal thriller dressed up with men in tights.

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