CINEMA / The not-bad shepherd

Quentin Curtis
Saturday 10 April 1993 23:02 BST

THE HOLY sting is the subject of Leap of Faith, in which Steve Martin plays a con-man for Christ. In the parched heartland of middle America, Martin sows the crooked theodicy of the Middle Ages: 'The more you give, the more you live.' His ministry is a military-style operation: a gaudy, convulsive spectacle of gospel choirs and faked miracles and mind-readings. Part of the film's fun is in finding out how these stunts are pulled: we hear the information fed into Martin's radio earpiece as he stuns his audience with knowledge of their lives, and we see a hale old lady bundled into a wheelchair from which she'll rise and walk - 'Praise Jeeezus]' - at the end of the show. Martin's Jonas Nightengale doesn't care for his flock, except to make sure they get fleeced.

This has been billed as Martin's first serious role, which misses what fun it is. Always the smartest of comedians, here he's brilliantly devious. Nobody's faked fake sincerity better. Blonde and blow-dried, he has a Garrison Keillor hearthside voice, and his one-liners sparkle even though they're paste: 'Death's a breeze: have you ever heard of anyone coming back to complain?' In his act, when he's flowing, his eyes are ferocious, his face clenched, his voice deep and convinced. He sprints, struts and kicks his way across the stage, thrusting his body with the message. He could have re-worked his old title, The Jerk.

He's too bad to be true, all cynicism and no sincerity - what is sinister about the new evangelists is their self-deception. Sheriff Liam Neeson, his usual worldly saint, sees, with his sad eyes, straight through Jonas. He tries to save the evangelist's partner-in- crime (Debra Winger), leading her to the straight and narrow of his bed. But by painting Jonas so black the film becomes more than an expose of a crooked cleric. Asked whether he's a fraud, Jonas replies, 'What difference does it make if I get the job done?' For a while the film seems to go along with him. Even in Jonas's charlatanism, we're told, there's a kind of goodness, a celebration of life which is what religion should be about. Jonas pulls the wool over people's eyes, but at least he masks them from their misery.

The film-makers back away from so sophistic a message. Lolita Davidovich and her crippled son (Lukas Haas) are wheeled on to provide genuine pain to confront Jonas's fake panaceas. The fraudster has a miraculous re- think and the plot takes a rest; the roisterous choir takes over. It's half a good film, only lacking the courage of its cynicism.

The Ox opens with a shot of a frosty windowpane. Outside the light is cold and soft, without shadows. You'd recognise it anywhere: it's the signature of Sven Nykvist, Ingmar Bergman's cameraman, who for 50 years has traced light in all its variety. This, his first major film as director, is a simple fable, handed down to him as a child, and painted with the subtlety of a Dutch master.

The setting is the famined Sweden of the late 1860s. Through that window the starving Helge Roos (Stellan Skarsgard) is watching, with ravenous eyes, his employer's ox. In the background Helge's baby can be heard wailing. Helge fetches an axe and fells the ox. Nykvist shoots the slaughter as an act of sudden, almost primeval brutality. He momentarily switches to slow motion, and the ox seems to hang for an agonised second in the air. On the snow where it falls is left a scarlet smear. Helge has food for his family, but it's tainted by his crime. When his wife (Ewa Froling) tries to eat the meat, she gags on it.

For much of the time The Ox feels like a Calvinist parable about the wages of sin. From his one rash act, Helge reaps an unwarrantedly bitter harvest. It starts as black farce: Helge tells his wife that they look too healthy and must stop eating (in fact they have a guilty pallor), and the meat goes off. Then Helge is caught by the local pastor, played with mutton-chop whiskers and bristly severity by Max von Sydow. Punishment outmatches crime, and Helge is given life, hard labour, and a thrashing. Much of the music is from Grieg's Peer Gynt suite, and Helge is like another Peer, unpeeling the onion of his suffering and forever finding another layer.

As Helge, Skarsgard gives a terrific portrayal of a good man with a fatal flaw: a form of naivety, a failure of intelligence that softens him in front of temptation. In prison, he destroys himself again by informing when he should stay silent. He grows a beard and his face becomes puffier, but he retains his spirit. Nykvist shoots these scenes with Stygian bleakness, the chain-gangs and cells wrapped in a grey pall.

The whole film is lit with Nykvist's customary restraint (the harsh contrasts of Chaplin were the exception to his rule). The interiors flicker with natural light, fire or candle, making the picture seem wan and sullen, until it bursts into vernal colour at the end, when its themes of temptation and forgiveness blossom. Comparisons with Bergman are inevitable, but the guilt and religious intolerance have more in common with the soulful austerity of Carl Dreyer. It's an original, and ought to be seen.

'We're gonna be cool; we're gonna play it by ear; and we're not gonna kill him unless we have to,' advises Pluto (Michael Beach), the mad dog capo of a trio of brigands on the run in One False Move. It might be the motto of this watchful thriller, which like Pluto's gang finds itself pulling the trigger with reluctance but regularity. The film opens with the three slaughtering a drugs dealer and his family in a manic, Mansonish frenzy of stabbings. The film has been praised for its violence. It's supposed to respect the victims: the slaughter is largely in long shots, so you see the attacks fully, and there's a shot of a taped-up mouth writhing against its gag. But the victims aren't characterised before being slaughtered: they needed flesh and bones before being corpses.

More salient are comparisons to film noir and the novels of Jim Thompson. The trio on the run has that Thompsonish desperation, and the sense of being doomed from the start. The film, like Thompson's novels, traces the agony after crime - not the conscience, but the complications. It's about in-fighting and the loss of trust, as thieves realise there can be no honour among them: if their partners were capable of the crime, what mightn't they do now? Once the drugs robbery is pulled off, the trio falls apart, riven by racial and sexual tension. The black psychopath, Pluto, grows wary of the white paranoid, Ray (Billy Bob Thornton), while both wonder if Ray's black girlfriend Fantasia (Cynda Williams) is worth the petrol.

Shadowing this trio are three cops: a pair of sharp suits and shades from LA (Jim Metzler and Earl Billings) and the local Arkansas good ol' boy, Dale 'Hurricane' Dixon (Bill Paxton). The hard-bitten professionalism of the hip big-city men (another black- white combination) is played off against the hick sentimentality of the windcheatered local lad, who's as evergreen as the soaring forests. Paxton's Hurricane is a typical noir hero, a touching innocent, yearning for a big future, but with a mean past that haunts him. Even in early Twin Peaks-style scenes, when he shares out local delicacies, you see the finger of fate hovering over him. The climax is played out to the sound of a mournful mouth organ. The film, the first mainstream feature from black actor Carl Franklin, is not quite the masterpiece some have hailed, but it has a bluesy grip, subtle humour and more thought than the average thriller.

'Leap of Faith' (PG): Plaza (497 9999) and general release. 'The Ox' (12): Chelsea (351 3742) and Renoir (837 8402). 'One False Move' (18): Odeon Kensington (371 3166) and general release. All nos 071.

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