The Reckoning (March 9/04)
The Reckoning is a marked improvement over director Paul McGuigan's first two efforts, The Acid House and Gangster No. 1. Both were guilty of favoring style of substance, turning them into films that were impressive visually but completely dull storywise. With The Reckoning, though it falls apart towards the end, McGuigan has finally crafted a film with intriguing characters and a plot worth following.
Set in the 1300s, The Reckoning opens with former priest Nicholas (Paul Bettany) forced to flee his hometown after sleeping with a married woman. While on the run, he encounters a traveling troupe of actors led by the charismatic Martin (Willem Dafoe). After a fair bit of pleading, Martin allows Nicholas to join their ranks as a performer. The next stop for the actors is a small town where a woman is due to be hanged for murdering a small boy. Nicholas and Martin prepare a play based on her case, and in the process of their research, come to the conclusion that she must be innocent.
It's the mystery element of The Reckoning that works best, as Nicholas and co. attempt to discern the truth in this matter. It plays out like a pre-civilized society version of Law and Order, except with a bunch of theater folk instead of detectives. There's a fascinating sequence about midway through the film, involving a performance of the play based on the case, in which the town's citizens are finally able to speak their minds regarding what they perceive to be a great injustice. It becomes clear that the townspeople are relieved to finally have a forum to express their thoughts, as they live under constant fear of punishment.
McGuigan keeps the stylistic flourishes to a minimum, choosing instead to focus on the characters and story. The look of this small town feels authentic; the gritty and dirty atmosphere seems to be an accurate representation of how things would've been back then. Along with cinematographer Peter Sova, McGuigan does a nice job of staying true to the squalid conditions of the time without turning the film into an unpleasant visceral experience.
But The Reckoning eventually becomes tiresome, exacerbated by an incredibly anti-climactic conclusion. The film seems as though it's leading to an electrifying confrontation between Nicholas and the legitimate perpetrator of the crime, but we're instead rewarded with a dull theological debate that goes on far longer than it should. The over-the-top melodrama of the film's final act doesn't really gel with what came before it, and ultimately turns the movie into a disappointment.
The performances are good, if unspectacular; the actors aren't doing anything here we haven't seen them do in better films. That sense of been-there-done-that is what eventually sinks The Reckoning, though there's no denying that it's certainly a step in the right direction for McGuigan.