Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Hollywood Interquest, Tinseltown
The last time director Scott Stewart and star Paul Bettany made a supernatural horror flick, it was last year's quite literally God-awful Legion. That movie, about badass angels fightin' in the zombie apocalypse so Jesus II can be born, or something, was — apart from its many other fatal flaws — an insult to religion. And I say that as someone who thinks religion is utter bunk.
But Priest is pretty awesomely good. Part of the reason why is because it's all about the clash between the power of The Church — which is vaguely postapocalyptically post-Catholic here — and the power of personal faith and belief. Oh, and it's also about killing nasty vampire monsters and blowing things up and stuff.
Working from Min-Woo Hyung's graphic novel, Stewart and Bettany have given us a supernatural horror flick that actually works on a lot of levels. In a bleak, repressed retro future — think Canticle for Leibowitz meets 1984 with some Firefly and Blade Runner thrown in — a caste of warrior pseudo-Catholic, pseudo-Jedi priests had been protecting humanity from a scourge of wicked animalistic vampires, until their services were no longer needed and they were discarded. So, there's also that as a little running subtheme, about how a society creates the warriors it thinks it needs and abandons them when they're not needed anymore.
Or maybe they are still needed. Cuz out on that Firefly-esque future-retro-Western frontier far away from the Blade Runner-esque city, damn if there isn't a zombie attack. And this brings the dude known only as Priest (Bettany) out of his disgraced retirement, because the only known survivor of the attack is his niece, who was carried off by the vampires.
The Church denies there's any vampire threat, so Priest is on his own except for the Priestess (Maggie Q), who's also probably in love with Priest even though it's forbidden, and Hicks (Cam Gigandet), the pseudo-Western sheriff who happened to be in love with the niece and wants to save her before she gets eaten.
There's also Karl Urban, who was a priest and is now called Black Hat, indicating that he ain't a harbinger of sweetness and light.
The thing that's so cool about Priest is that even though it's easy to point out how derivative it is in a lot of ways, it's also sort of thrilling in how spare and clean and un-self-conscious it is about itself, while acknowledging its roots. No movie that I can recall has appropriated more beautifully and more fittingly the graphic-novel style:
This looks like what a comic book in motion should look like, while also taking advantage of the nuances of human expression that living actors, as opposed to static drawings on a page, can bring to a story. The story and characters are just as magnificently lean, existing starkly atop a complex world that we just barely glimpse. Rare is the film today that holds back more than it shows us.
That's a wonderful sort of tease. It's a talent for seduction, for leaving us wanting more rather than exhausted and disenchanted by getting too much, that more movies need to rediscover.