PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.


'The Reckoning' (2003)

The play's the thing

The Reckoning

Director: Paul McGuigan
Cast: Willem Dafoe, Paul Bettany
Distributor: Warner Archive
Year: 2003
USDVD release date: 2014-03-18

The Reckoning begins with lovely, stylized, cold images of nature while Nicholas (Paul Bettany) shaves his head in a forest, drinks from a stream, and flashes back to his downfall from priesthood for sins of the flesh. After a terrifying encounter, he learns (again) that appearances are deceiving and takes up with a troupe of traveling players who perform "Mysteries" (Biblical plays) across the rural England of 1380.

They arrive at one village, dominated by the castle of the local lord (Vincent Cassel), just in time to witness a mute woman's conviction for strangling a boy. She's sentenced to hang. The troupe's leader (Willem Dafoe) wants to put on a new kind of play, one that dramatizes the local event. After arguing the morality of this, their investigation and production stirs up new evidence and lots of trouble, as we realize we're in yet another plot about a serial killer of children. This is apparently what we need to take our entertainment seriously nowadays.

Scripted by crime novelist Mark Mills from Barry Unsworth's novel Morality Play, this medieval crime story (more a procedural than a whodunit) doesn't avoid the occasional nod to The Name of the Rose or The Seventh Seal (a passing witch-burning), nor should it. Nods aside, the setting and story are unusual and hold our attention. Everything about the troupe's method and performance is riveting, even bold, with the scenes of audience response especially catching something worthwhile. The basis of this idea may have been when Hamlet decided "the play's the thing wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king".

The excellent cast includes Brian Cox, Tom Hardy, Gina McKee, and Simon McBurney among the traveling players, Elvira Minguez as the mute woman, Matthew Macfadyen as "the King's Justice" (who's supposed to be the official detective), and a good cameo for Simon Pegg as a callous jailer. Thanks to photographer Peter Sova and (I presume) a crew of digital processors, much of the film looks startlingly beautiful in a bleak way, with location shooting in Almeria and Andalucia, Spain, and in Wales. The score by Adrian Lee and Mark Mancina boasts a sweeping orchestral sound with "religious" choral work. Director Paul McGuigan (The Acid House ) deserves a lot of credit for orchestrating all this smooth, grimy beauty; he's more famous for modern crime movies and episodes of Sherlock.

Why isn't it totally satisfying? One minor reason is that the murder mystery itself doesn't try to be much of one, relying on standard tropes about the appetites of power. If it's derivative, at least it's evoking one of the sources of the serial-killer mystique, the medieval legend of Gilles de Rais (played, as some reviewers noted, by Cassel in The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc ).

In theory, the last act counts as a "satisfying" ending. In practice, it reaches through philosophical confrontation toward gestures of Christlike sacrifice and something about the power of the people (not exactly revolution) in a manner that dampens what we'd probably prefer and feels anti-climactic. Perhaps this fault lies partly in the film, partly in ourselves. The new on-demand disc from Warner Archives is a straight reissue of the no-frills 2004 Paramount DVD. (For some reason, the reviews on the linking Amazon page belong to another movie.)


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.





Jefferson Starship Soar Again with 'Mother of the Sun'

Rock goddess Cathy Richardson speaks out about honoring the legacy of Paul Kantner, songwriting with Grace Slick for the Jefferson Starship's new album, and rocking the vote to dump Trump.


Black Diamond Queens: African American Women and Rock and Roll (excerpt)

Ikette Claudia Lennear, rumored to be the inspiration for Mick Jagger's "Brown Sugar", often felt disconnect between her identity as an African American woman and her engagement with rock. Enjoy this excerpt of cultural anthropologist Maureen Mahon's Black Diamond Queens, courtesy of Duke University Press.

Maureen Mahon

Ane Brun's 'After the Great Storm' Features Some of Her Best Songs

The irresolution and unease that pervade Ane Brun's After the Great Storm perfectly mirror the anxiety and social isolation that have engulfed this post-pandemic era.


'Long Hot Summers' Is a Lavish, Long-Overdue Boxed Set from the Style Council

Paul Weller's misunderstood, underappreciated '80s soul-pop outfit the Style Council are the subject of a multi-disc collection that's perfect for the uninitiated and a great nostalgia trip for those who heard it all the first time.


ABBA's 'Super Trouper' at 40

ABBA's winning – if slightly uneven – seventh album Super Trouper is reissued on 45rpm vinyl for its birthday.


The Mountain Goats Find New Sonic Inspiration on 'Getting Into Knives'

John Darnielle explores new sounds on his 19th studio album as the Mountain Goats—and creates his best record in years with Getting Into Knives.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 60-41

PopMatters' coverage of the 2000s' best recordings continues with selections spanning Swedish progressive metal to minimalist electrosoul.


Is Carl Neville's 'Eminent Domain' Worth the Effort?

In Carl Neville's latest novel, Eminent Domain, he creates complexities and then shatters them into tiny narrative bits arrayed along a non-linear timeline.


Horrors in the Closet: Horrifying Heteronormative Scapegoating

The artificial connection between homosexuality and communism created the popular myth of evil and undetectable gay subversives living inside 1950s American society. Film both reflected and refracted the homophobia.


Johnny Nash Refused to Remember His Place

Johnny Nash, part rock era crooner, part Motown, and part reggae, was too polite for the more militant wing of the Civil Rights movement, but he also suffered at the hands of a racist music industry that wouldn't market him as a Black heartthrob. Through it all he was himself, as he continuously refused to "remember his place".


John Hollenbeck Completes a Trilogy with 'Songs You Like a Lot'

The third (and final?) collaboration between a brilliant jazz composer/arranger, the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, vocalists Kate McGarry and Theo Bleckman, and the post-1950 American pop song. So great that it shivers with joy.


The Return of the Rentals After Six Years Away

The Rentals release a space-themed album, Q36, with one absolute gem of a song.


Matthew Murphy's Post-Wombats Project Sounds a Lot Like the Wombats (And It's a Good Thing)

While UK anxiety-pop auteurs the Wombats are currently hibernating, frontman Matthew "Murph" Murphy goes it alone with a new band, a mess of deprecating new earworms, and revived energy.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 80-61

In this next segment of PopMatters' look back on the music of the 2000s, we examine works by British electronic pioneers, Americana legends, and Armenian metal provocateurs.


In the Tempest's Eye: An Interview with Surfer Blood

Surfer Blood's 2010 debut put them on the map, but their critical sizzle soon faded. After a 2017 comeback of sorts, the group's new record finds them expanding their sonic by revisiting their hometown with a surprising degree of reverence.


Artemis Is the Latest Jazz Supergroup

A Blue Note supergroup happens to be made up of women, exclusively. Artemis is an inconsistent outing, but it dazzles just often enough.


Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.


'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.