Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Holy Smoke (2000)

Holy Smoke is an Australian drama starring Harvey Keitel and Kate Winslet and directed by Gillian Armstrong. When the story opens, Ruth (played by Winslet) has joined a cult and moved to India, to the consternation of her family. Her mother travels to India to see her daughter and initially has trouble gaining access to her, but eventually Ruth sees her mum and tells her that she is happy in her life. Troubled Mum returns hone where the family makes sacrifices to hire American deprogrammer PJ Waters (Keitel, in a strong performance). Acting on Waters's advice, the family lures Ruth back to Australia by telling her that her father is near death from a heart attack.

Ruth finds herself in the middle of a family intervention and is then left in an isolated ranch house with Waters for his three-day deprogramming process. Ruth is furious with her family and Waters, and refuses to cooperate in any fashion. She finally realizes that she has sexual power, and seduces Waters repeatedly to destroy his credibility.

The film is very well acted by the leads.  Julie Hamilton, as Mum, gives a nice supporting performance. If only I bought into any of he drama. There are two points that I thought were particularly glaring. One, Ruth is a smart and independent woman. I don't believe she would ever get sucked into a Hare Krishna-like cult. Secondly, she never seemed desperate enough to seduce a man nearly 40 years her senior -- no matter how charismatic he was. (Maybe director Armstrong has a thing for Keitel? She used him as Holly Hunter's leading man in 1992's The Piano.) No doubt about it, Keitel is used to good effect here, but the age difference is as creepy as his moral shortcomings.

A third thing that bothered me is how Ruth, presumably an adult, was held against her will. I don't know anything about Australian law, but I question the legality of the situation - even if her family was behind it. Nor do I know anything about customary deprogramming tactics, and I suppose I might feel differently if cult brainwashing happened to a loved one of mine. The script wasn't strong enough to make me believe in Armstrong's interpretation, though.

And what is the title Holy Smoke supposed to mean in the context of this movie?

Despite all the annoying aspects of Holy Smoke, I never found it dull. Keitel, Winslet, and Hamilton are fascinating to watch.  I only wish they had found a different film to be in.  I'm sure that there is a good movie to be made about deprogramming a cult member, but this isn't it.  Grade: C.

I watched Holy Smoke via Netflix Streaming on February 19, 2013.

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