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Sunday, January 25, 2009

Review: The Skeleton Key (2005)

· Actors: Kate Hudson, Peter Sarsgaard, Joy Bryant, Gena Rowlands, John Hurt
· Directors: Iain Softley
· Writers: Ehren Kruger
· Language: English, French
· Subtitles: English, Spanish, French
· Region: Region 1
· Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
· Number of discs: 1
· Rating:
· Studio: Universal Studios
· DVD Release Date: November 15, 2005
· Run Time: 104 minutes

The Skeleton Key begins as Caroline Ellis, a hospice worker in New Orleans, is reading Treasure Island to one of her patients only to discover that he has died while she was reading to him. It seems that even before the man’s body is cold, Caroline is asked to discard his personal effects in a dumpster since the man’s family didn’t want anything to do with him. Disillusioned with her job and seeking a more satisfying vocation, Caroline resigns to take a position as a private caregiver to Ben Devereux, a stroke victim not expected to live very long, on a remote plantation deep in the bayou.

Caroline’s first meeting with Violet, Ben’s wife, does not go well. Violet seems to resists Caroline’s presence, but acknowledges the pressing need to have someone there to assists her in taking care of her husband, or so it seems. Violet’s estate-lawyer, Luke, talks her into accepting Caroline. On her first day, Caroline is given a skeleton key by Violet and told that it opens every door in the house. When Caroline gets a brief chance to explore the old plantation house, she discovers that not only are there no mirrors in the house but that Violet’s statement isn’t exactly true. It seems there is one door in the attic that the key will not open.

Caroline learns that Violet forbids mirrors in the house, but senses that her reasons are suspect. When Caroline asks Violet about the room in the attic, Violet expresses ignorance stating that she’s never been able to get into that room. Discerning that Violet is not telling her the whole truth Caroline investigates the door further and is able to find her way inside the room. Here, she finds a strange assortment of magical artifacts including murky jars, twisted dolls, a receipt book (an old term for a book of spells), and an assortment of magical instruments.

Caroline questions Violet about the history of the house and learns of its dark past. According to local history, the room belonged to Papa Justify and Mama Cecile, two servants who worked at the house during the 1920’s. In their day, they were feared and renowned as Hoodoo doctors, which Caroline learns is different from Voodoo and is a type of folk magic. Despite their reputations as Two-Headed Doctors, Justify and Cecile where lynched during a party one night after being caught practicing a bizarre ritual with the children of the house owners.
It is then that Violet confesses that the reason there are no mirrors in the house is because she has seen the ghosts of the dead servants in them and that perhaps Ben saw them too, owing to his present state. Caroline, being from New Jersey and not familiar with the power of Hoodoo, dismisses Violet’s fears and resolves to help Ben come out of his virtual catatonic state. Caroline tries to reach out to Ben, even letting him look into her compact, the only mirror that Violet allows her to possess. Ben has a somewhat violent reaction to the mirror, but not for the reasons we are lead to believe.

Coming to believe that Violet is working black magic on Ben, and that his symptoms are simply a manifestation of his own beliefs in Hoodoo, Caroline visits a Root Doctor in a neighboring town and learns a healing ritual which she believes will cure Ben, or at the very least improve his condition. Later, Ben gathers enough strength to write a very brief plea for help in mud on his sheets, which later disappears.
Fearing that Violet will kill Ben before he is able to recover, Caroline goes to Luke Marshall, the estate lawyer who took part in her interview. While there Caroline uncovers evidence that Luke is working with Violet. However, before she can get away, Luke knocks her unconscious and takes her back to the manor.
The action in the movie picks up pace as Caroline is held captive and struggles against Violet and Luke in order to save not only her self but also Ben. With no car or telephone to reach out for help, Caroline is forced to summon the power of Hoodoo to protect herself. Will her belief be strong enough to save her, or will her belief in the power of Hoodoo be the linchpin in her undoing?

The Skeleton Key is a movie rich in both imagery and atmosphere, capturing the magical feel of New Orleans. It is well thought out and acted. Kudos goes to John Hurt who had absolutely no lines in the movie but who gives one of the most powerful performances in his career. The director went to great lengths to give the flavor of magic presented in this film as much authenticity as possible while still telling the story that he wanted.
Most people are now aware of the twist ending, which I will not speak of here, but which will come as a major shock to viewers who’ve never seen the movie. The realization of the movie’s twist and the consequences thereof will haunt you days later and many will be compelled to return for second and even third viewings.

Carolina Dean

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