“She’s special and that’s why they want her.”
Poor little Cody (Holliston Coleman). Only six years old and already everyone wants a piece of her. Cody’s special in a very particular way in a second-coming kind of way which, in movie-logic, makes her the prime target for a slew of Satan’s minions, yet again descending on New York City, as they did so memorably in Rosemary’s Baby and, more recently, in Schwarzenegger’s stab at the occult, End of Days. Add to this the fact that Cody’s primary guardian is her well-intentioned but startlingly inept Aunt Maggie (Kim Basinger), and it’s clear that the child is in for a rough time in Bless the Child.
To be fair, some of Aunt Maggie’s judgment errors might be attributed to her understandable lack of expertise in dealing with the Devil. But this doesn’t mitigate the fact that most of what happens in the film is plain silly, a function of poor scripting (not surprisingly, as it’s written by a string of people connected by ands and ampersands) and uninspired performances by just about everyone involved. Take, for instance, the apparent extraordinary connection between Maggie and Cody, most odiously illustrated by their shared visions of swarming digitized rodents and swooping digitized gargoyles. This is likely a good thing, a sign that Maggie’s lapsed Catholicism will not necessarily keep her from salvation when the time comes. But the visions are also disquieting, not in themselves (the effects are very cheesy), but in Maggie’s complete inability to handle them intelligently. Mostly, she appears to pretend they aren’t there, though it’s hard to say exactly what she’s thinking, as she closes her eyes, crinkles her nose, and looks fretful and, um, fragile.
So okay, battling demons may not be her strong suit, but it is her major task in this movie. As a friend of mine put it during one acutely egregious scene in which Maggie and Cody are chased by the bad guys’ limo, and Maggie pulls over and accidentally sends Cody straight into their wide-open arms “Kim’s not very good at this, is she?” Truthfully, she’s not. Then again, she’s not usually called on to save the day. In fact, looking fragile is what Basinger does best, what wins her prizes and acclaim. Being that she is not only famously insecure and but also rewarded for looking like she is, she usually brings to her roles a sense of her own vulnerability, her seeming uneasiness in her own skin. She brings a sense that she is, indeed, special. And even if you and I might not think that looking fragile is the best way to fight the Devil, in Bless the Child, it turns out to be a very effective mode indeed.
Again, to bend over backwards to be fair, you might assume that Basinger’s Maggie a psychiatric nurse who works in an ER is capable enough for standard plotting. But she’s up against it in this movie (which producer Mace Neufeld is hopefully calling a follow-up to his previous Satan flick, The Omen), as she’s sent headlong into a situation dire enough to make even the most ferocious filmic hero anxious. This direness is immediately manifest in the first scene, set around Christmastime: Maggie is riding the bus home from work you know, one of those Hollywoody shorthands for righteous humility when she’s approached by a Caribbean woman, who chatters on about the Star of Bethlehem and seeing the light. You can bet Maggie’s about to see some light whether she wants to or not. It’s another shorthand: beware Caribbean ladies on public transportation.
A few minutes later, the trouble begins, when Maggie’s junkie sister Jenna (Angela Bettis, a patient with Winona in Girl, Interrupted) brings her infant daughter that would be Cody to Maggie’s place, mumbles something about her being special, then disappears into the night. Maggie raises the girl (shown in a significant-growing-up-moments montage reminiscent of the one Madonna and her little boy do in The Next Best Thing) and whoosh Cody’s six and being diagnosed as sort of autistic but not really. She rocks a bit and stares hard, spins her toys without touching them, and has nightmares that correspond with Maggie’s. She also brings dead pigeons back to life, like a party trick for her fellow special ed students. Even though there are reports of a serial killer of six-year-olds on the tv news every night and Maggie is repeatedly mystified by her own bad dreams and Cody’s tricks (when she even spots them: like I say, she’s exceedingly slow on the uptake), life for the twosome is, on its surface, good. (To make sure you’re not lulled into a comfort zone, though, the film shows you scenes that stuff Maggie doesn’t know about, just so you remember: beware bald thuggy guys who lure young children into their vans.)
Disaster strikes in the form of the bad junkie mom’s return, or rather, in her companions, her new husband/youth cult leader Eric Stark (Rufus Sewell) and evil nanny Dahnya (Dimitra Arlys), who, you learn soon enough, is lethally adept with her knitting needles. They take Cody and by no logical means Maggie contacts the chief investigator on the serial killer case, FBI Special Agent John Travis (Jimmy Smits, playing a cross between Mulder and Bobby Simone, still with the swank trenchcoat). As it turns out, the case is related, as the children are being slain by members of Stark’s cult, that bald guy and a crew of goth-crossed-with-punk-looking kids who beat down their victims. (“Kids” in this movie are unnuanced emblems, either special like Cody or monstrous, as if regular children are just too strange to contemplate.)
Travis, a former seminary student, has spotted the satanic and druidy symbols on the serial killer’s victims (the film conflates all kinds of religious icons and myths, unintelligibly). But still, his fellow investigators think he’s screwy, at least at first. Then, suddenly, they’re doing everything he says, supplying him with choppers, guns, and tear gas out the wazoo, then getting lost in the misty night at crunch time. Maggie, on the other hand, doesn’t do a thing Travis tells her: instead, she goes through motions of activity, all the while not doing much more than observing the chaos around her and closing her eyes when it gets too daunting. Yet, to move the plot a bit, she tracks down info on the upcoming Easter Eve Doomsday on her own; traipses off to have a portentous chat with an ex-priest in a wheelchair (Ian Holm, perhaps the only actor who read the script before he said yes, as he’s kept his appearance on screen to two minutes, no lie); gets herself rescued a few times by angels (white, serene looking folks); and engages in spooky conversations with an ex-junkie-cultist (Christina Ricci, looking fabulously gloomy). Finally, Maggie takes it on herself to kidnap Cody while the girl’s on a trip to the dentist. (I still don’t know what this last detail has to do with anything else, but it is oddly highlighted in the dialogue and plot, so perhaps it means something.)
To call Bless the Child ridiculous doesn’t begin to cover it. Most troubling is its obvious investment in the fragile but determined white lady image. The “barren” Maggie will do anything to protect the child she couldn’t have herself (shades of Ripley), and she undergoes something resembling a recovery of her religious faith while maintaining her penchant for science (shades of Scully, on occasion). The film uses some pretty creepy shots of Stark terrorizing Cody (lightning crashes, he threatens to throw her off a rooftop and urges, “Give yourself to the one I serve!”) in order to get your dander up i.e., make you want her to be saved. But it’s Maggie’s wacky passivity that gets your attention. I’m guessing that this has less to do with her gender than with the film’s basic philosophical quandary: in matters of faith, you must surrender your will, make a leap, die and be resurrected, all that. But Bless the Child‘s literal images of such abstraction look more than a little foolish.