Holy Smoke

Holy Smoke is the kind of movie that makes a person shake their head in bewilderment. All of the elements of a good movie are here. Kate Winslet (Titanic, Hideous Kinky) is still able to carefully pick her jobs, Harvey Keitel (Smoke, Copland) is once again naked, and it is directed by Jane Campion (The Piano, Portrait of a Lady), and co-written by Campion and her sister Anna, who wrote the novel. The story centers on the efforts of an American to try to deprogram an Australian woman taken in by an Indian cult. There are other characters in Holy Smoke, but their roles are all inconsequential. Written as an absurdist comedy, the film often falls flat.

On a trip to India, Ruth Barron (Winslet) falls in with the cult, and refuses to come home. Barron's family hires PJ Waters (Keitel), an American cult deprogrammer, to help bring her to her senses. Barron is lured back under the pretense that her father is dying. Her family and friends then surprise her by telling her she must spend the next three days with Waters, who intends to 'cure' her. Waters does his best to exert complete control over Barron to break her, but she ends up with the upper hand. The main problem with this movie is the cult deprogramming. Waters is said to be the best in his field, yet the Campions' portrayal of deprogramming is less than mundane. It is doubtful that anyone can be saved from a cult using the methods shown in the film. Waters proceeds recklessly, ignoring many of his own rules as the movie progresses. And how good can Waters be if Barron so easily takes over?

Waters fails even further when he falls for Barron. He effectively cedes any control of the situation over to her. There is also a lack of chemistry between Winslet and Keitel, though this isn't obvious to their characters. Waters does his best to control his emotions, but gee, when Barron pees on herself, they go buck wild. The film also includes a short segment on actual cults, including Jonestown, Charles Manson, and Heaven's Gate, that serves no real purpose except to remind viewers that cults are supposed to be a part of the film.

Winslet and Keitel do give good performances. Even when the film begins to degenerate, their performances are still able to make Holy Smoke look better than it actually is. There are also some funny moments in the film, mostly dealing with Barron's family, and unintentionally funny moments that arise from the use of special effects. Brilliant colors and visions envelop the screen when Barron first experiences the cult. The whole experience looks like something out of a bad music video. Overall, after a promising first third, Holy Smoke goes up in smoke, drifting lazily higher until dissolving into nothing.

Mongoose Rates It: Not That Good.
1 hour, 56 minutes, Rated R for strong sexuality and language.

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