NYFF '99 REVIEW: "Holy Smoke" Unravels in Campions' Confused Cult
by David Bourgeois
Usually when you think of the words “cult” and “brainwashing” you often think of a shaggy-haired anti-government extremist preaching to a vapid crowd; Reebok-wearing alien-lovers dressed in sweat suits waiting for a comet; or a large flock of fruit-punch drinking loonies in a sun-scorched desert. Apparently, director Jane Campion has a totally different understanding of these concepts. For her, the words encompass visions of a sultry, sexy Kate Winslet prancing about in chaotic India, espousing the peace-and-love beliefs of a seemingly innocuous guru.
In Campion’s latest film, the badly titled “Holy Smoke,” she and her sister Anna have scripted a story about free-spirited Australian Ruth Barron (Winslet), who, during a vacation to India with her friend Prue, falls in with a group that worships a clandestine guru. Likening him to the Baghwan Shree Rajneesh, Campion only shows the guru once briefly, when he’s presiding over a communal celebration. Ruth and Prue listen intently, but Ruth is the one who has a psychedelic awakening after the guru affixes a mystical symbol on her forehead. From that point on, we are to believe that Ruth is a dangerous cult member. (If joining a cult was only this easy.)
Prue fears the worst and rushes back to Australia to tell Ruth’s parents and siblings that her introspective friend has become “brainwashed.” The worried and unstable mother jets off to India and– after suffering an asthma attack on the street — convinces a skeptical Ruth to accompany her back to Australia. Little does Ruth know that her family has called upon the services of the world’s foremost deprogramming expert, P.J. Waters (Harvey Keitel), who arrives in Australia from Los Angeles with a bravura, shallowness and egocentrism that represents everything evil and callous about America.
Keitel’s character here is basically a sequel to his role as Winston Wolf, the can-do “cleaner” in “Pulp Fiction,” who, in that film, was called in on a moment’s notice to fix a particularly bloody situation. This time the messy situation involves the cleansing of a soul, not a bloodstained automobile.
Waters has performed 189 successful exits, and by now he has the deprogramming shtick down to a quick three-day routine. After the family encircles Ruth, she reluctantly agrees to spend the required time alone with Waters in a hut in the Australian outback. Because his assistant has bailed at the last second, he’s forced to eviscerate Ruth’s demons solo. The bulk of the film centers on the exit strategy and the back and forth tension, sexual and otherwise, between Keitel and Winslet.
Almost from frame one, the film unravels due to two enormous leaps of faith. First, Campion approaches brainwashing and cults in a ludicrous, timid manner. Are we really to believe that Ruth is brainwashed simply because she dances wildly to Alanis Morissette‘s “You Oughta Know“? In fact, with this scene, it appears that the film might take a turn toward the direction of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Maybe Ruth isn’t the one brainwashed, rather, everyone around her is in a hypnotic daze. Unfortunately, this more interesting route is never explored.
The second leap of faith occurs toward the end of the film, where Waters — after breaking the golden rule of the doctor-patient relationship and having sex with Ruth — goes tumbling off the deep end and loses the upper hand of the relationship, unable to deal with the cunning Ruth. How could a deprogramming expert who’s performed 189 “exits” get himself into such a predicament?
The performance of Keitel and Winslet (who has never looked sexier on screen) are the high point of the film, since the best scenes are the subtle mind-fucks that they play on each other. Keitel, glammed up with jet-black dyed hair, isn’t straying too far from material he’s familiar with, and he, too, has some humorous moments as the slick-talking Lothario. One particularly good moment occurs when he practices a “deep breathing exercise” with Ruth’s slutty sister-in-law Yvonne (Sophie Lee).
As usual in Campion films, the visuals and music are used impressively in driving home the point of desert isolation. The music is perfectly suited to the subject matter (“Holly Holy” and “I Am, I Said” by Neil Diamond). In the end, however, the restraint with which Campion deals with the subject matter makes the film as highly unsatisfying as drinking a batch of nasty Kool-Aid.