Supernatural thriller The Order could have been called CSI: The Vatican. But what starts with an idealistic young priest investigating the suspicious murder of his mentor quickly veers into theological absurdity.
Father Alex (Ledger) heads to Rome where he inspects the victim’s body and finds odd scars—marks left by an immortal man called the Sin Eater. Writer/director Brian Helgeland (who has reunited principals from his A Knight’s Tale cast) based this story on a medieval superstition. "If you were dying and had been excommunicated and couldn’t receive last rites, they’d send for a Sin Eater, whom they believed would absolve the sins of that person. He would take the sins right into his soul."
The Sin Eater turns out to be a well-groomed, smartly dressed fellow who sees himself as a compassionate public servant of sorts. When the Catholic Church abuses or shirks its duty by writing people off, he charges a fee to punch a person’s ticket to heaven. One character says, "If Hitler had had one in the bunker, he’d be sitting on a cloud right now." Indeed, the Sin Eater is portrayed as powerful. When he ingests people’s sins, he not only gets a look at their misdeeds, but he feels the burden of them. (Note: The film treats man’s sins as an accumulation of heinous choices, not a sin nature inherently in need of redemption.)
Once Alex tracks down the 600-year-old Sin Eater, the angst-ridden priest is coerced into taking his place. It seems consuming centuries worth of transgressions has the guy ready to pass the baton. As the credits roll, a new supernatural superhero stalks off, ready to administer deathbed justice as he sees fit.
Beyond bizarre, the premise is blasphemous. Only one has ever borne the sins of another: Jesus Christ (John 3:16-18, Acts 4:12). It happened once and for all. Fictional though it may be, The Order implies that His death is insufficient to save souls, and that church leaders—or a Sin Eater—must sign off on everyone who checks out of this life. It diminishes and delegates the authority of our High Priest. Granted, when Alex and his pals cast out demons, the cross and name of Christ have power. Yet elsewhere, Jesus is marginalized.
Furthermore, characters make statements that will curl Christians’ toes. A book shop owner cautions Alex about searching for facts, stating, "Knowledge is the enemy of faith." Alex and his girlfriend conclude that God makes "brilliant mistakes." The Sin Eater is even worse. Bringing Alex up to speed on the way the spiritual realm operates, he tells him, "You’re right, God exists. He just doesn’t give a d--n."
This is a dark, dreary, tedious movie where people talk in riddles, and graphic blood-lettings pass for dramatic tension. Violence, f-words and a sex scene (Alex forsakes his vow of celibacy) give families more reason to avoid it. 20th Century Fox chose not to give critics an advance look at The Order so as not to scare off opening weekend crowds. Shrewd move. It’s a heretical dud on the level of Stigmata and Lost Souls. To be fair, I did have a terrible seat; it was facing the screen.