Monday, November 28, 2022

All of Them Believers


One thing to miss about this new world of entertainment run by streaming services: losing that time in college you flipped through channels, stumbled upon a scene where a cheery housewife was electrocuted in front of her young son and Martin Sheen, then had to run to a class only to spend the next 20 or so years wondering what that movie was, and where it could possibly go from there. Had you known the answer was "Law & Order episode complete with before-they-were-famous faces and facial spider egg nests," just imaging what your 20s may have been like.

Anyway, it's 2022 and I finally found said film. 

Quick Plot: Dr. Cal Jamison is ready for a fresh start. You would be too if after a cheerful morning run, you came home to watch your loving wife be horrifically electrocuted by a hotplate and spilt milk as your young son watches on. It's enough to make a man pack up his life and move to 1987 era New York City, where a comfy job as a psychologist for traumatized police officers awaits. 

Cal heads east just in time for a series of brutal child murders to sweep the headlines. Someone is killing young boys of color in what seems like ritualistic sacrifices. Local detective Tom (baby-faced Jimmy Smits) is undone by the discovery, warning his new therapist that everyone is in danger before stabbing himself in the middle of a Harlem diner.

The lieutenant on the case (Robert Loggia!) senses something bigger at play, which slowly takes Cal down a dangerous path of how some of the city's most elite and powerful titans of industry have acquired their strengths. It's a little creepy, a little silly, and definitely more than a little racist.

Voodoo is something no white American should really use as the subject of film. No matter how many positive characters (such as Cal's friendly housekeeper) you toss in, it's basically impossible to not turn your story into one that casts dark-skinned non-traditional Christians as monsters. They talk in TONGUES. They DANCE frenetically. They plant mysterious dust on your stylish compact so your face can erupt in a spider-filled rash. THEY'RE EVIL, you see.

If there's a silver lining of The Believers, it's that (minor spoiler) the actual villains are whiter than a Ritz Carlton tablecloth...though they require the tools and skills of the Caribbean to execute their impressively evil plans. So yes: still kinda racist. 

The Believers was based on a novel by Nicholas Conde, with a screenplay by a pre-Twin Peaks Mark Frost and directed by Midnight Cowboy and Marathon Man's John Schlesinger. The film certainly carries the gritty New York energy of those titles, and at times, makes for an engrossing mystery that puts a very specific spin on Rosemary's Baby. But it also seems to exist in a world entirely of its own, one that wants to engage in the lives and practices of Afro-Cubans, but also, has no earthly idea how to do so without marveling at their exoticism. 

It's a shame, and I honestly don't know how much of my thoughts watching The Believers had to do with the movie itself or the nagging feeling that in 2022, it just felt irresponsible. There are some fun (if predictable) big plot swings, high stakes all around, and a nice little punch in its coda that makes this film stick with you. But also, it's, you know, a bit silly and a lot ill-advised. 

High Points
Martin Sheen's Cal is a very particular protagonist of the era: a renaissance man with an FBI profiler's brain, FBI recruit's physical stamina, and CBS-style FBI leading man luck with the ladies. It's a ridiculously written role, but it's the skill and charisma of Sheen that both makes it work and ultimately holds the entire film together

Low Points
I've said enough about the implicit racism of the film, so I'll move on to a missed opportunity: there's a reveal around two side characters that should have deep weight, but never feels fully explored (especially when one has a last minute change of heart). In a nearly 2-hour movie that doesn't seem to mind building out some side characters, I don't really understand why these two are left so unresolved

Lessons Learned
Don't cry over spilt milk: just clean it up quickly with your dirty running socks before it can lead to the electrocution of a loved one

It is inappropriate to tell knock knock jokes before breakfast

In the '80s, it was common for landladies to have professionally done headshots hanging proudly in their bedrooms

In the scheme of Rosemary's Baby-inspired late '80s NYC-set ritualistic murder mysteries, The Believers is pretty rad. It's got A-list talent behind and in front of the scenes, and it tosses more than a few surprises your way. It's also a movie made by (and for) a whole lot of white people spinning something they probably don't understand very well into some wacky plot fodder. I think it's old enough that one can watch it with that grain of salt firmly in cheek and still have a grand time. At the time of this posting, it's streaming on Amazon Prime, though the movie seems to hop services more often than the subway breaks down, so good luck!

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