From the moment Ruth Barron’s (Kate Winslet) dazzling, innocent eyes meet the glowing hypnotic gaze of Indian cult guru Chidaatma Baba (Dhritiman Chaterji), the young Australian woman is hooked. Hooked on being hooked, that is.
If it takes any recognizable shape at all, Jane Campion’s (Sweetie, The Piano) Holy Smoke is a meta-meditation on escaping escapism and a critical examination of the human need to worship – to believe. It plays, brilliantly and whimsically, with the consequences of surrender and the cold, blind isolation of resistance.
Ruth, a perfect Campion heroine, is hard-edged, sensual and lost in the vastness of her own curiosity, aimless longing and internal unrest. She’s an easy mark – both needy and knowing – and an impossible rebel all at once. During her brief Hindu adventure, she celebrates the contradiction, prancing around India in a virginal white sari, talking love and Baba, and chain-smoking between transcendental states. Do we laugh at her or empathize with her?
Before that question can be answered, Ruth’s family whisks her and her white sari back to Australia to meet a walking midlife crisis in cowboy boots who hires himself out as a deprogrammer. P.J. Waters (Harvey Keitel) is contracted by the family to get their daughter back from the "cult" that took her away. In an isolated cabin, Waters gets down to business with a quick psychological assessment, feigned confidence and some dangerous vulnerability of his own.
As it turns out, taking away Ruth’s sari and applying a list of moves from the big-man-deprogrammer handbook does cause a transformation. But it’s Waters who is transformed. Ruth had fallen into an oasis that showed her peace, love and acceptance. Waters goes from a psychobabbling cowboy to a pathetic lovesick jerk, whose obsession with his client lands him in the middle of the desert defeated, bleeding, hysterical and wearing a lipstick-red party dress.
Campion’s film pushes the envelope, as usual, playing the shell game of sexual identity and an enlightening round of psycho-spiritual hide-and-seek. Ruth is screwed up. Waters is screwed up. The family is screwed up. Hell, everybody is screwed up. And Holy Smoke is all the more interesting, convincing and touching for it.
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