Bless the Child
Screenplay : Tom Rickman and Clifford Green & Ellen Green (based on the novel by Cathy Cash Spellman)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2000
Stars : Kim Basinger (Maggie O'Connor), Jimmy Smits (John Travis), Holliston Coleman (Cody), Rufus Sewell (Eric Stark), Angela Bettis (Jenna), Christina Ricci (Cheri), Michael Gaston (Bugatti), Lumi Cavazos (Sister Rosa)
Satan has been having quite a year at the movies. Coauthoring ancient texts in Roman Polanski's "The Ninth Gate" and posing in the enviable form of Elizabeth Hurley to buy Brendan Frasier's soul in Harold Ramis' upcoming remake of "Bedazzled," the Prince of Darkness has been quite busy lately. However, he makes perhaps his boldest appearance in "Bless the Child," a film in which his presence haunts most of the film until he finally becomes tangible in the form of hundreds of rats crawling on top of each other until they morph together for a few seconds as a huge demonic figure.
While "Bless the Child" does have its share of computer-generated demonic imagery (some of the most effective being winged demons that are seen circling certain locations), most of the film is not overly reliant on special effects. Rather, director Chuck Russell goes for the "Sixth Sense" approach: a spooky atmosphere of dark cinematography and the invasion of Gothic relics into the modern-day city. His efforts are hardly original, but from time to time they work.
"Bless the Child" is an off-and-on effective religious thriller that posits the notion of a prophet child who is sought by a secret cult of Satanists posing as a self-empowerment conglomerate. While this sounds a bit hokey at first, from a theological point of view, this set-up is quite effectual. After all, a self-help group asserting that each one of us is a god capable of full empowerment on our own is a devious and workable method of undermining the teachings in the Bible without openly catering to "immoral" behavior.
Of course, many critics have already accused "Bless the Child" of taking itself too seriously, as if any movie that features phenomena based on religious beliefs should automatically be used for some kind of sly satirical purpose. "Bless the Child" does have its faults (namely some very clumsy plot exposition), but much of it works on its own level, which is, admittedly, so closely tied to basic Christian beliefs in good and evil (there are actually angels that appear from time to time) that one would suspect a religious organization helped fund the production.
The story, which has been pared down significantly from Cathy Cash Spellman's plot-heavy 1993 novel, concerns Maggie O'Connor (Kim Basinger), a psychiatric nurse working in New York City. One December night, her younger, drug-addicted sister, Jenna (Angela Bettis), shows up unexpectedly with a nine-day old daughter named Cody. Jenna leaves the child with Maggie and disappears, leaving Maggie to raise her. As the years pass, it becomes clear that Cody has some form of mild autism, although Maggie suspects it is something else. "It's almost as if she's listening to something we can't hear," she tells a doctor.
When Cody is six years old (now played by Holliston Coleman), she begins to manifest signs that there is indeed something otherworldly about her. Maggie, who was raised Catholic but is generally nonreligious, doesn't pay much attention. Then, Jenna resurfaces, now married to Eric Stark (Rufus Sewell), a suspicious self-help guru whose cult-like group, The New Dawn, has apparently helped Jenna get her life together. Jenna and Eric demand that Maggie give Cody up to them, and when Maggie refuses, they simply take her.
Apparently, Cody is some kind of prophet or messiah (it is never clear exactly which), and Eric's Satanic group wants to either convert her or kill her. Maggie, with the help of a seminary-student-turned-FBI-investigator named John Travis (Jimmy Smits), spends most of the film either searching for Cody or running from New Dawn minions. This takes her to several locations in Eric's secret empire, including a plush apartment hidden away in a New York slum building and a remote upstate ranch that features a crumbling Gothic church that has been converted into a house of Satan worship. It also involves a number of often-clumsy action sequences that are, more or less, unnecessary.
Director Chuck Russell started his directorial career with "A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: The Dream Warriors" (1987) and has since made films as varied as the Jim Carrey cartoon comedy "The Mask" (1994) and the Arnold Schwarzenegger bullet-fest "Eraser" (1996). There is nothing particularly notable about his work except to say the it doesn't draw much attention to itself. Unlike the hey-look-at-me MTV-style pyrotechnics of director Rupert Wainwright in last year's awful religious thriller "Stigmata," Russell keeps the unnecessary visual flourishes to a minimum.
Kim Basinger's performance as Maggie is a bit flat, but she is certainly serviceable in the lead role. Rufus Sewell, as the malevolant Eric, is generally detestable, and he creates a sense of unease with the fact that both of his eyes are never looking in the same spot. As Cody, Holliston Coleman puts in the film's best performance. Quiet and understated, you almost believe this girl knows and sees more than all the adults fighting over her.
For all its effort, though, "Bless the Child" is a mixed bag. It has its effective moments, but at the same time, it is too obviously derivative of other thrillers. The scene in which Ian Holm, who plays a renegade Jesuit priest, intones with grave sincerity that the best trick the Devil ever pulled off was convincing people he didn't exist is a bust because it takes you right out of the story and brings up images of Kevin Spacey saying the exact same thing in "The Usual Suspects" (1995). This is unfortunate because that scene should be the centerpiece of the film--the deviousness of Satan and the sly manner in which he works on Earth is what "Bless the Child" is ultimately about. It's too bad a much better movie used the line first.
©2000 James Kendrick