In the abundance of post-production press that actors complete to try and promote their most recent film, again and again we’re given clichéd one-liners about the people with whom they’d worked with lots of self-congratulations and pats on one another’s backs. Often it reminds me of the scene in Bull Durham when Kevin Costner teaches up-and-comer Tim Robbins that there’s only a handful of sentences he needs to say to reporters in exuding his passion to “do what’s best for the ball club.” Trust is a word often used by actors who say they have great trust for the directors whose artistic visions they tried to realize. While many say they trust their directors, actor Harvey Keitel went one hundred steps further and managed to walk his talk. How much did he trust his Piano director Jane Campion? The answer would be: so much that in their collaboration Holy Smoke he is shown wearing a dress and makeup, chasing down young, beautiful Kate Winslet through the Australian desert. Now that-- my friends-- is trust and far more revealing than hearing an actor recite their favorite curse word to James Lipton on Inside the Actor’s Studio.
In Holy Smoke, we are taken along for the ride as gorgeous, independent and strong-willed Ruth Baron (Kate Winslet) embarks on a voyage of self-discovery in India while traveling with friends. Wandering into a guru’s trippy display of his powers, she abandons the Neil Diamond soundtrack that’s been playing in the background (an odd choice) and Campion’s film takes a psychedelic cue as the young woman falls under the influence of the religious leader. Fearing the worst, that Ruth has now become a member of a cult after she refuses to return home, has little in common with her former personality traits and adorns a sari, Ruth’s parents hire PJ Waters (Keitel), an admittedly chauvinistic cult deprogrammer whose swagger and macho demeanor announces his presence even before he’s given much in the way of dialogue. These few carefully chosen shots make viewers realize that his masculine pride and vanity will be his downfall after he meets beguiling Ruth who decides, once the two are holed up together for intensive deprogramming rituals, that two can play the same game as she exacts calculating personal revenge and mind games follow.
Keitel and Winslet’s scenes together are wonderfully potent, maddening, shocking, surprisingly funny and so addictive that we find ourselves completely willing to forgive the film its many shortcomings even after it begins to stay long past its welcome and we question the validity of the storyline and characters once PJ crosses the first of several lines and becomes romantically involved with Ruth. If as Leonard Maltin wrote in questioning PJ’s credibility, “This is supposed to be his 190th case; what were the other 189 like?” In addition to wondering about PJ, the audience also feels shortchanged about Ruth, having seen very little of the character before she’s manipulated and entranced by the guru. One of the most enlightening scenes—which would probably have been left on the cutting room floor in most other films except by the sing-along happy Cameron Crowe—has Ruth singing along to “You Oughta Know” at the top of her lungs and the way she drives Alanis Morissette’s lyrics home make you realize that there’s so much more to the lovely girl than meets the eye and we wish that in addition to the actors’ trust, Campion (who penned the film along with sister Anna) would have trusted her audience enough to give us more in the way of background information since we feel there’s much that we oughta know.