Starring: Kate Winslet, Harvey Keitel
Release Year: 1999
McCain Library Call #: DVD 2073
Quick Rating: WATCH IT!
Co-written and directed by Jane Campion (The Piano), Holy Smoke! tells the story of Ruth Barron (Kate Winslet), an Australian girl who goes on vacation in India only to come home a sari-wearing follower of a Hindu mystic named Baba. Ruth’s parents feel that she has been brainwashed, so they hire an exit counselor–someone trained to help people get out of cult religions. P.J. Waters (Harvey Keitel), the brash American counselor they hire promises that after three days Ruth will no longer want to return to India to group marry Baba. However, what P.J. doesn’t know is that Ruth isn’t like his other cases.
The bulk of the film follows P.J. and Ruth’s three days together in a secluded treatment bungalow in the middle of the Outback. By the end of the three days, P.J. hasn’t been able to make Ruth believe she’s been brainwashed. Instead, the power dynamic makes a sharp 180, and instead of P.J. mandating the terms of Ruth’s house arrest, Ruth takes control of P.J. by manipulating him sexually.
I love Campion’s film for several reasons. The cinematography of the film is colorful and bold, reflecting the high stakes situation between the two characters. The film is very much actor-driven, and the character development is captivating. Both characters have a vice: Ruth is selfish and P.J. is a womanizer. In the third act of the film especially, the two leads clash horns, and the film becomes less about curing Ruth’s spiritual state and more about curing them both of their worst quality. Additionally, the film takes a rather progressive stance on gender-bending and subverting the typical formula for what makes women sexy in Hollywood by making Ruth a realistic woman.
Vivacious, thought-provoking, and very much a product of 90’s feminism, Holy Smoke! asks us to think about what we believe, and questions how strongly we believe it.