Holy Smoke!
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While traveling with a friend though India, Ruth Barron (Kate Winslet) is seduced by a mystical cult led by an enchanting Indian guru. She decides never to return to her home in Australia—but her family has other plans. Determined to pull her out of the cult using any means necessary, Ruth’s mother travels to India, tells Ruth a fictional story about her father’s failing heath, and eventually lures her back home.

Once Ruth is back in Australia, her family hires tough American cult expert PJ Waters (Harvey Keitel) to deprogram her. They’re told that he’s the best there is—and he claims that he can have her back to normal in just three days. So he brings Ruth out to an isolated old shack in the middle of nowhere and slowly begins his task.

Ruth, however, has no intention of being deprogrammed, and she and PJ become locked in a battle of wits. Before long, it’s hard to tell who’s manipulating whom.

Holy Smoke! could have been a spectacular film. In fact, as I watched the beginning, I expected it to be a spectacular film. The scenes in India are stunning—and The Piano director Jane Campion does an excellent job of portraying the noise and confusion of the city streets and the enchantment of the cult. And the battle of wits between Ruth and PJ promises to be fascinating.

But then things suddenly change.

Instead of showing PJ in action—and showing the mental struggle between PJ and Ruth—Campion and co-writer/sister Anna Campion apparently gave up on their research and decided to throw in some shock value to distract viewers’ attention away from the story. They threw in a few sex scenes and plenty of nudity and called it a movie. And the result wasn’t pretty. In fact, the image of Harvey Keitel’s naked rear end sprawled on top of poor Kate Winslet may very well haunt me for the rest of my life. I could never wish that on anyone else—which is partially why I can’t recommend this movie.

As the story progresses, it only goes farther downhill. Ruth changes from the sweet yet strong-willed woman she once was into a manipulative temptress. And PJ changes from a strong, determined man into a big pile of mush. Perhaps the filmmakers wanted to show that a woman’s sexuality is stronger than a man’s intellect. But why? Why does a woman have to use her body as her greatest weapon in the battle of the sexes? Can’t she use her mind instead?

Overall, the story is full of distractions and inconsistencies, turning a potentially moving and thought-provoking film into an unbalanced disappointment on film. Skip this one if you know what’s good for you.

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