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THE BELIEVERS

* (Has redeeming facet)

Directed by John Schlesinger

Written by Mark Frost

With Martin Sheen and Helen Shaver.

It is John Schlesinger's habit to handle confrontations with evil, despair, and moral collapse like a trip to the fun house. In his hands, Nathaniel West's surreal nightmare novel of 30s Hollywood, The Day of the Locust, became a lush, golden vision of a time past, with a cautionary message delivered via a handsomely choreographed street riot. There was little craziness or blackness, just the picturesque poignancy of what happens to people with too many dreams and too little sense. His protagonists tend to be thin creations dangled before various bogeymen or thrown into the hopper to be crushed by society. Since you don't care much about them to begin with, you're happy to watch Schlesinger do his worst, especially since he puts the machinery in motion with such enthusiasm and flair. The actress/model of Darling was a beautiful, ambitious woman, but Schlesinger took pains to make her a shallow, self-serving bitch as well so the thrill would lie in seeing how high she could climb before he knocked the props out from under her. He has the old storyteller's inclination to draw on stereotypes, but while he flashes them up he rarely fleshes them out. Rather, he uses stereotypes and hackneyed symbolism to inject bits of predigested meaning into his plots. The Falcon and the Snowman never explored or questioned the depth of the relationship between the two young suburbanites who betray their country. Schlesinger simply repeated the flashback image of the two as altar boys together, as if this one image explained everything--their friendship, their misguided loyalty to each other, their fall from grace.

It's called entertainment (as in "pure entertainment," "mindless entertainment," and so forth). There's nothing wrong with that, except that Schlesinger has always fancied himself to be more than a mere entertainer. From his earliest days, when he was associated with Britain's Free Cinema movement of the 60s, his work has worn the patina of social commentary. Even back then, unlike his colleagues who more often erred on the side of grit, he liked his social comments colorful, fashionable, and with no loose ends. By the time he made his first American film, in 1969, Schlesinger had settled into a pattern of industrial-strength manipulation of sensationalized material. How handily Midnight Cowboy explained the hustler Joe Buck with a neat package of reveries, from a blue-tinted gang rape to a boy's life with grandma depicted in a pastel haze. How conveniently Joe's values and expectations met their mirror image in Manhattan in photogenically exotic nightspots.

Over the years, Schlesinger has developed a glitzy visual style that relies on heavy-handed cutting and obvious symbolism. In The Falcon and the Snowman, just in case we don't get the association of one of the characters with a falcon, he grandly intercut the man and the bird, complete with fancy soaring shots from the bird's point of view. His camera work has been characterized by showy tracking shots, symbolic use of color, novelty lighting effects, and soft focus--especially for the dreamy flashbacks he favors. When Suss, the war criminal of Marathon Man, exults over the hundreds of pea-sized diamonds that roll across the screen with the multipointed fire of miniature explosions (thanks to a star filter), we understand that this is not your ordinary sadistic Nazi psycho, but the personification of evil. We are in the grip of Schlesinger the storyteller, and if there's anything he doesn't want, it's a thought or reaction out in the audience that he hasn't built into the plot.

Schlesinger may have overplayed his hand with The Believers, a pseudo horror thriller that is likely to meet with some unscheduled hilarity. Dangerous powers are at work in the life of psychologist Cal Jamison (Martin Sheen) and his happy little family, starting with the power of electricity. One overflowing coffee maker plus one short circuit plus bare feet in a puddle of milk equal one fried Mrs. Jamison. After the tragedy, Cal and his seven-year-old son Chris move from Minneapolis to New York, where nearly everyone practices the voodoolike Afro-Cuban religion Santeria. The good version of Santeria enables you to put love spells on people, make holy water in the privacy of your own home, and keep neat handcrafted devotional items on your desk or dresser, all in return for sacrificing the occasional chicken or goat. The bad version of Santeria enables you to have anything you want in the way of worldly success--all you have to do is dispatch your firstborn son with a big ceremonial knife while chanting "I believe."

Cal begins work as a therapist for the police department and is immediately called in on a case that seems to involve a form of Santeria. A child has been found, a victim of ritual murder, and a violently frightened young Latino cop is going to be charged. He was the first policeman on the scene and appears to know much more than he's telling about the circumstances of the killing. Cal's job is to counsel the man back to a semblance of sanity so they can question him. In his off-duty hours Cal begins a flirtation with his attractive landlady, Jessica (Helen Shaver). Meanwhile, son Chris has begun learning Spanish from the housekeeper, maintaining a shrine to his dead mother, and wearing a beaded shell found in the park near a makeshift altar bearing a decapitated house cat. The stage is set for Cal to wrestle with the bogeyman for the life of his own son as he investigates the murder of the other child.

Schlesinger's impulse to turn moral struggle into high-toned spectacle finally trips him up in The Believers, rendering the film preposterous. He wants it all: nuanced naturalism, surrealism, monstrous evil, thrills, chills, and a trick ending. The big moral struggle, however, is merely screenwriter's hocus-pocus blatantly constructed out of motiveless coincidence. Cal finds Santeria at work, at home, under the bed, in the kitchen, and down the block. While an African sorcerer is putting his girlfriend Jessica in a trance, the housekeeper is at home performing a bizarre ritual over Chris. Sane and skeptical part of the time, Cal can change his stripes when expediency calls, and get down on his knees to squeeze the blood out of a chicken while Jessica offers a mild "This doesn't feel right." Soon he'll be standing over his son with a knife in his hand. Don't ask about any of the mysterious lapses in judgment or willpower in The Believers--this is clearly a result of the electric-cattleprod school of filmmaking.

Given the usual bluntness of Schlesinger's work, one strange quirk of his is that he occasionally selects superb cameramen who expand the images with unexpected complexity. For both The Day of the Locust and Marathon Man it was Conrad Hall; for The Believers it is Robby Muller. The subtlety of their work is often at odds with the ham-handedness of Schlesinger's plot construction and editing; this is especially so in The Believers. Ironically, in a film built on the most literal demonstration of his themes, one that even features some David Cronenberg-like organic horror effects, he has engaged one of the most understatedly expressive cameramen at work in the world today. It's an almost impossible combination to pull off: in order to appreciate the subliminal meanings of Muller's images, one must attain a certain level of absorption, while the content of Schlesinger's shots is designed to lie on the surface so that meaning is delivered with the force of sledgehammer blows. The opening of the film depicts Cal on an early morning run. His body is eerily suspended against the sky at the crest of a hill while two light poles arch in from the left side of the frame, creating a vague but unsettling threat. Suddenly a vehicle comes over the top of the hill, sharing half the frame with Cal. What is it, folks? It's the deadly milk truck delivering the last carton of milk Mrs. Jamison will ever see.

Occasionally the comic book trashiness of the story is given an aura of moral ambiguity through Muller's work. Schlesinger has a great fondness for long horizontal pans during which the focus shifts to a new subject to effect a scene transition without a cut. There are many such shots in The Believers, implying instability and catastrophic change, and they are accomplished with the effortlessness and delicacy of a fish slithering through water. The housekeeper appears at the kitchen window; the focus changes to fix on the rosary she drops into a glass of water on the windowsill, its crucifix encrusted with oxygen bubbles; the camera glides inward to focus on the pale light of the next room.

Ultimately, though, The Believers is like a tiresome card trick. Schlesinger is so anxious to top himself that he repeatedly turns over new cards to prove that everything you thought you knew is wrong. He pulls his bait-and-switch strategy again and again, staging betrayals and turning good guys into bad guys in a pattern of deception reminiscent of the monster-that-wouldn't-die ending of The Terminator. It's a manipulation of pieces of cardboard, not meant to mean anything so much as to remind you just who holds all the cards.

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