Carline (Kate Hudson) is a sweet, stylish do-gooder. She drives a classic red Beetle, keeps her hair neatly coiffed even in New Orleans humidity, and looks after “old people” for a living. Whether reading Treasure Island to a dying hospice client or researching hoodoo spells for a bedridden, mute stroke victim, she always means to do the right thing. Not that she believes in hoodoo. She’s only looking into it because she believes her client does.
She comes to this conviction in a roundabout, do-gooding way. As the title, The Skeleton Key, suggests, Caroline is given a key that opens every door in an old, many-roomed mansion. She’s just quit her job at the hospice; “It’s just a business to them,” she explains to her practical-minded best friend Jill (Joy Bryant). When she adds that she’s heading to Terrebone Parrish to interview for a new position, Jill is appalled. “It’s a fucking swamp,” she worries, “They got gators in the swamp and guys with missing teeth.” Caroline, however, is determined not to be afraid, and ends up hired as caretaker for stroke victim Ben (John Hurt), even though her interview with his wife, Violet (Gena Rowlands), is less than ideal.
For anyone with even passing knowledge of Southern gothics, Violet is all red flags. She mutters, arches her eyebrow from under her floppy gardener’s hat, simultaneously hovers over and seems to resent Ben. She’s also not immediately in love with Caroline, whom she identifies as “not from around here, you hear how she talks” (right: Hoboken, New Jersey). As Violet’s estate lawyer, Luke (Peter Sarsgaard, again magnificent), puts it, “She’s Old South, she thinks women still curtsy.” Mutter, mutter. In a reasonable universe, Caroline wouldn’t even think of staying. And yet, she packs up her cute little bug and moves in, reassuring Jill that it’s only an hour away. “All right,” Jill agrees, but warns her not to be affected by her employers: “No knitting, no joining a bridge club.”
While Caroline dismisses her friend’s concerns, strained and ongoing relationships between generations do shape her experience at the spooky house. On one level, the terrors here are very regular scary house devices: shadowy figures, howling winds and stormy nights, cobwebs in the attic. But the film raises other concerns as well, having to do with history, payback, and the unending ache of slavery. The script, by Ehren Kruger (who wrote the truly disturbing Arlington Road and the truly silly Reindeer Games), is both predictable and upsetting. While Violet teeters between looking ominous and vulnerable, Caroline is obviously an easy mark: the more she protests (and the more faith she puts in the soft-spoken, strangely always-available Luke), the more you know she’s doomed.
Not only is Ben repeatedly looking at her with beseeching eyes, but Violet is increasingly shady. You might also expect that Caroline has her own vaguely explanatory backstory, that is, she was away working with a band, feeling youthfully rebellious, when her own father died, and since then she’s devoted herself to caring for the elderly, in particularly men with only weeks to live. It’s not an especially compelling motivation, and it hardly explains her extraordinary-seeming capacity for punishment and discomfort. But it gives you the chance to mutter, “Don’t go in there.” It also allows her to accept Luke’s assessment that Violet, contrary to appearances, “does want help, she’s just scared,” you know, because her husband’s about to expire. All Violet’s worrisome behavior—her narrowed eyes and creeping around corners—it’s all a function of her fear.
Thus the movie puts you a few steps beyond trusting, self-confident Caroline, though it’s not clear in what direction. As Caroline begins inevitably to suspect Violet has ill intent toward her ravaged-seeming husband, the house turns creakier, the shadows more sinister, and doors more seductive. Carrying that key around with her, Caroline imagines she has some control over what she’s looking at, and moreover, that she can read it accurately. She opens locked doors in the dusty attic. She finds indications of old-timey hoodoo business, helped along by Violet’s odious storytelling (helped along by Rowlands’ amusingly baleful performance).
According to legend, the mansion was once home to a family who kept a pair of black servants, Papa Justify (Ronald McCall) and Mama Cecile (Jeryl Prescott Sales). Carline finds their pictures are hidden around the house, along with various written conjurations and rings shaped like snakes. Not surprisingly, especially in a film about a girl who wants so badly to make amends for her personal past, the black couple’s story represents (in abruptly edited, sepia-toned flashbacks) the definitive onus of U.S. history, involving white fear of blackness, white property anxieties, and white violence in the form of lynching. “The house is theirs as much as ours,” mutters Violet.
Before you can say Angel Heart, Caroline’s researching roots and chicken bones, telling herself she’s safe because she’s tough and independent and “doesn’t believe.” (Her interest occasions the usual educational inserts for the rest of us, explaining hood origins and terms, like, a “two-headed doctor” is a “conjure man.”) But everyone knows that white folks meddling in black folks’ enchantments never works out in the movies. And so Caroline, who doesn’t quite grasp Jill’s healthy mix of skepticism and self-protective distance, falls into trouble, never quite knowing whom she’s helping and whom she’s battling.