Oh, irony, thy name is Iain Softley! For this very British director, working from a script by a guy from the suburbs of Washington, D.C., and working with the typically accent-challenged cast, steps right into it with The Skeleton Key, yet another club-footed attempt to capture the "mysterious" side of Louisiana. What's more mysterious is how Hollywood seems genetically incapable of separating Louisiana from the rest of the South, New Orleans from the bayou, voodoo from hoodoo, Cajun from Creole, joie de vivre from Hand Grenades.
There's a ripple effect that emanates from this place that never seems to find its true, funky, accurate rhythm elsewhere. We live in a state that is filled with magical paradoxes of culture, history and lifestyle, one that mystifies us, liberates us and infuriates us all at once. This area certainly doesn't lack from cultural tourists who are here one day (or decade) and gone the next, but it would be nice if folks would stop and smell the incense for a bit. Like life itself, it's complicated. And yet, all Hollywood seems to come up with is a bunch of spell-inducing crazies who chew up and spit out humanity. Why? Because the devil made us do it. Sweet.
All of this cultural offensiveness wouldn't be so bad if The Skeleton Key wouldn't suffer from the ultimate offensiveness: tediousness. Angel Heart was many things, but it sure as hell wasn't boring. And if there's one golden rule of storytelling, it's to never bore. The Skeleton Key draws as many yawns as it does that now all-too-familiar rolling of the bayou-country eyes.
Stop me if you think you've heard this one before. Caroline, who missed out on her father's death, compensates by working as a hospice nurse in a New Orleans hospital. She grieves with her African-American roommate in between ReBirth Brass Band gigs at the Half Moon Lounge (huh?), but grows weary of saying the long goodbye to her patients.
And so, riding the St. Charles Avenue streetcar, with its sensuous view of Rampart Street facades and above-ground cemeteries, she spies a classified ad -- in what will go down in history as the most blatant case of Gambit Weekly product placement! -- to be a caretaker for a stroke victim in Terrebonne Parish. (Who knew we shared the same area code?)
Her roommate is suspicious, but Caroline drags her VW Beetle out to Cajun/Creole country, where nobody seems to answer their door and everyone seems to be up to such weird rituals as oyster-shucking and haircuts. (I crap you negative, but one insanely handsome black man surprises her at a desolate, ATM-free gas station with the perfectly enunciated query: "Parlez vous Francais?") And we have Gena Rowlands' Violet taking care of John Hurt's Ben, with Peter Sarsgaard mailing in a performance via FedEx as an estate attorney named Luke who splits his time between watching poor John Hurt's clock and flirting with Caroline. Caroline is given an all-access skeleton key to move around the house, opening doors both literal and metaphorical, and usually finding something intended to provide a little jolt of fear. You'd think after the third or fourth gasp, she'd high-tail it back to the Half Moon.
Caroline soldiers on, hoping to care for the very Louisiana-sounding Devereauxs, (who actually moved here from Savannah, Ga.). But the real patient is their decaying mansion that harbors secrets of rituals, decadence and even a lynching. So there's history there -- particularly in the attic, which is in a dead heat with the cellar as the official scary place of any scary movie. And Softley takes every opportunity to lead the horror-flick conventions through their paces -- creaking house, Attic of Secrets, ghosts, sins of our fathers, you know the drill -- while poor Kate Hudson struggles to find anything new to this character.
Softley's at his best when he conjures up a few mystical images. The back-story flashback is as artful and head-spinning as the crucial plot point videotape of The Ring, with its swirl of grainy black-and-white footage mixed with blurred colors. It's a nice little head trip and provides a nice break from the relative tedium of the rest of The Skeleton Key. But Softley just can't seem to find his footing in the Louisiana mud, and as the secrets begin to finally reveal themselves, and the past overtakes the present, and the doors keep opening, and the stereotypes are all typed out, and the offensiveness has run out of offense ... zzzzzzz.