by Ben Kenigsberg
Three obnoxious "jump scenes" in the new Kevin Costner vehicle
have prompted me to write a brief discourse on what constitutes a successful scary-movie jump scene. Not to be confused with jump cuts, jump scenes are moments in movies designed to make you leap out of your seat in fright -- like when someone creeps up behind the main character in the dark and utters something in an ominous voice.
But when you jump during a jump scene, 90% of the time, it's not because the movie is frightening. It's usually because the filmmaker has opted for a sudden loud noise on the soundtrack. You jump as a reflex. Jump scenes are genuinely scary when they surprise you, showing you something you didn't expect. During
The Sixth Sense
, I flew out of my chair when a ghost kid turned around and revealed that the back of his head had been shot off. Not so with the scenes in
, which I foresaw, but which my indiscriminate reflexes couldn't differentiate from aural assaults.
I only mention this to demonstrate how
cheats as a horror film. It also cheats as a melodrama, a spiritual-journey film, a medical thriller, and an adventure picture, following the clichs of each style of filmmaking to the letter. The test screenings on this movie must have set some kind of record. There's something here for everybody -- fans of slasher flicks, fans of
, fans of ghost stories, fans of soapy romances, and even fans of Costner, if any actually exist.
But director Tom Shadyac (
Ace Ventura: Pet Detective
) fails to establish a consistent tone. If the film is a mystery, why does it not provide us with sufficient clues? If it's a horror film, why doesn't it end on a more unsettling note? If it's a drama about a man dealing with the death of a wife, why are all the supporting characters so unsympathetic? If it's a mystical film, why is the cinematography so drab?
Individual scenes play like resurrections of moments from other movies, especially the hospital scenes. For example, we see a boy in cardiac arrest being raced into the ER. He flatlines, and the entire medical staff stands in silence until the doctor intones -- like this is the actor's one chance to catch a break in the movies -- "he's gone." I wonder if doctors really say that.
only example of medical idiocy. The movie doesn't understand how organ donation works. Costner, easily the worst mainstream actor of his generation, plays Chicago physician Joe Darrow. At one point, Dr. Dickinson (Ron Rifkin) tells Joe to stand by a dying man so no other doctor "choppers in" to steal the patient's kidney. After all, Dickinson has waited a long time for a fresh kidney. (Is he trying to jump the list?)
Joe's oncologist wife, Emily (Susanna Thompson), described as "a healer and a tribute to the human race," is killed at a Red Cross station in Venezuela when some boulders fall on her bus, knocking it down a cliff and into a river. After the accident, the bus is apparently so hard to fish out that the authorities leave it in the river for months, through the dry season, when it's mostly above water.
Meanwhile, something extraordinary happens back in Chicago. Emily's patient's heart stops temporarily. When he comes to, Joe comes to see him, since Joe promised Emily that he would visit her patients while she was away. The kid says that Emily contacted him while he was flatlining. She wants Joe to go "to the rainbow." He and another patient, who didn't know Emily, begin drawing wavy crosses, which, we figure, indicate where the rainbow is.
I don't want to sound picky -- I mean, there's no way we can be sure that ghosts' behavior is governed by rules -- but if Emily can deliver a complex message to her patients, like telling them that Joe will visit them, how come she can't give Joe better directions than a wavy cross? Even if Emily had to communicate in symbols, when we finally find out what the wavy cross represents, we wonder why she couldn't pick a simpler sign. How can she talk to Joe through the bodies of some dead patients and not others? How come, at one point, she can even appear to Joe as a vision? None of these questions are answered by the satisfactory but disappointingly cute ending.
Joe goes to Sister Madeline (Linda Hunt, extra faux-creepy) for such answers. Sister Madeline studies people who have near-death experiences and is apparently so important that when tabloids paint her as a quack, a more respectable newspaper runs a story titled "Tabloids Tarnish Nun's Research."
"Am I going nuts?" Joe asks her. "As nuts as Christopher Columbus thinking that there was another side of the earth," she replies. How does Joe know he's not imagining all this? "What we're experiencing now could be in our minds," she explains.
I wish this movie were only in my mind. But those who yearn for a real film about a man who feels haunted by his dead loved one have one surefire place to turn: Alfred Hitchcock's