The Skeptic is a film that premiered in 2009 when Independent Film Channel used it as one of their video-on-demand service offerings. And that seems apt, given that The Skeptic, with it’s B-list actors, cheesy dialog and two-dimensional drama, feels like nothing so much as one of the cheaply-produced TV movies broadcast and cable networks used to churn out on a weekly basis.
The sense that this film probably belongs in a ’90s-era Lifetime marathon begins with the casting. The lead character, an overly-rational lawyer named Bryan Beckett, is played by Tim Daly who — to his credit — doesn’t look to have aged a day since his tenure on Wings. The role of Sully, Bryan’s wacky partner and best-buddy is filled by Tom Arnold, which these days puts this movie more in the pedigree of Soul Plane than True Lies.
Sully spends most of his time admonishing Bryan for being so goddamn emotionless and cynical all the time, especially when Bryan seems to deny the possibility of an afterlife when an aunt drops dead unexpectedly. Bryan, you see, is a skeptic. We know this because everyone loves to point it out. He’s a handsome, successful man with a beautiful wife, a healthy child and a keen intelligence, but his lack of belief in phenomena he cannot observe is apparently his single defining characteristic. And everyone seems to have a real problem with Bryan’s atheist outlook and cool manner, whether it’s his wife who weeps over his lack of emotions, or his priest (Robert Prosky, in his last role) who appraises this happily Godless man with a rueful shake-of-the-head and knowing wag of the finger. Why they continue to hang out with a guy who is so unapologetic about holding views that they all find so offensive is kind of a mystery, especially to poor Bryan, and as a result he decides to get away from the wife (who confuses him with her demand that he cry more often) for a little bit and shack-up in his dead aunt’s cavernous Victorian mansion, which he assumes he has been left in the will.
Things get weird, however, when Bryan discovers that his aunt actually left the house to a group of researchers who investigate paranormal activities. His aunt, it turns out, was seeing ghosts. Bryan goes to confront the scientists he believes have been taking advantage of a scared, old woman, only to find that they are as skeptical of the existence of lost spirits as he is (and yes, they too immediately identify Bryan as the most skeptical man they have ever come across). But when Bryan goes back to the house, he starts hearing voices. And seeing apparitions. And crying. Horrified, he runs to his childhood psychologist (Edward Hermann), who advises Bryan that he is probably just having hallucinations, brought on by lack of sleep. On the other hand, the psychologist has some strangely specific questions about what Bryan has seen, although Bryan doesn’t seem to notice.
It’s hard to say why this film seems more like an episode of the Ghost Whisperer than a film originally planned to be shown in theaters. The cheap production certainly doesn’t help, but the greater culprit is the clunky dialog that mechanically rolls out of the characters mouths. Daly, Hermann, Prosky, and even Arnold do the best they can with the cartoonish drama offered by the script (although Daly never finds a way to make his character’s odd preference for profanity fit into the overall tone of the film), but there’s not much to work with. A pre-Star Trek Zoe Saldana, who shows up as a self-proclaimed psychic who tries to help Bryan in his quest for answers, manages even worse, and proves that the haughty women of action she’s been playing recently are a better fit for her than the over-emotional free spirit she’s expected to carry off in The Skeptic.
But her character is important to the plot because she prods Bryan to continue exploring his bizarre experiences, and eventually they come to realize that the things he is seeing and hearing are related to some deeply repressed issues of his own, and a secret that his friends and family have kept hidden from him for most of his life. While the plot seems pretty horror-by-the-numbers for most of its duration (although it’s also kind of sloppy, with it’s barely-formed characters and liberal use of psuedo-science) it does get a little interesting towards the end.
The conclusion is actually somewhat surprising, and the end is left ambiguous in way that asks viewers to decide what really happened based on whether they side with the views of Bryan the skeptic, or are open to the possibility of stranger forces being at work. Then again, it’s such a tedious journey getting to that final question, it’s doubtful that many will bother to stick around and answer it.