Monday, October 15, 2012

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #7: The X-Files: I Want to Believe

Seasons 1 – 4, I was a major ‘X-Files’ fan. This was back in the days when I used to watch TV. Back in the days when there was something on beyond so-called reality shows. ‘The X-Files’ was a reason to stay in instead of going to the pub or the cinema. It was worth taking the phone off the hook for. It was something you talked about at work the next day.

Season 5, it started going downhill. The mythology episodes became increasing dour and convoluted, to the point where it seemed like the writers were painting themselves into a corner. For a show that was at its best trading on sardonic humour and maintaining a deadpan aspect whilst treading a thin line between genuinely scary and ooops-there-goes-my-suspension-of-disbelief, it committed the cardinal sin of taking itself too seriously.

The first big-screen spin-off, the horribly titled ‘X-Files: Fight the Future’ appeared in 1998, a bridge between the fifth and sixth seasons. I’d pretty much tuned out of the series at that point, but trudged dutifully off to the cinema expecting little and getting even less in return. I’ve still not seen the last few seasons, including the Mulder-less ninth and final series which I have it on good authority is a case of not with a bang but a WTF.

One thing drew me to the decade-delayed second film (the title ‘X-Files: I Want to Believe’ only marginally better): Billy Connolly. That he could convince in a dramatic role was never in doubt – ‘Mrs Brown’ and ‘The Man Who Sued God’ were proof positive. But Billy Connolly as a paedophile priest with psychic abilities! At what point in the pre-production meetings did his name come up as a casting possibility and what were they thinking?

Whenever and whatever, it was inspired! With David Duchovny curiously enervated in his belated return to the role of Mulder and Gillian Anderson, while still on form and every inch the Scully of the series, relegated offscreen for large swathes of the second half, it’s Connolly who defines ‘I Want to Believe’. As the disgraced Father Joseph Crissman, Connolly is a revelation, his performance low-key but bristling with edginess and a sense of sullied enigma.

The film opens with Scully as a practising doctor at a hospital run by a Christian administration, which automatically opens up a debate on science vs faith. Approached by FBI agents Drummy (Xzibit) and Whitney (Amanda Peet) who are keen to benefit from Mulder’s work in cases involving psychic phenomena, Scully reluctantly persuades Mulder to re-enter the fold. Although equally reluctant initially, Mulder’s interest in the case soon reaches the obsessive heights of old.

It’s a strange beast, is ‘I Want to Believe’. Absent anything to do with aliens, it puts an “x” in the box (pardon the pun) of most of the show’s thematic concerns – the unexplained vs rationalism, the nature of belief (in this case both religious and non-religious), and the barely tolerated maverick’s place with a protocol-ridden organisation – and yet it seems so unlike an ‘X-Files’ story that if you changed the protagonists’ names and cut maybe a dozen lines of backstory-specific dialogue, you’d have a stand-alone piece of work that would function perfectly well on its own merits. This alone accounts for the critical head-scratching and lacklustre box office that greeted its release. That winning combination I mentioned earlier, the key to which was sardonic humour? ‘I Want to Believe’ is almost entirely devoid of humour (the exception being a couple of monumentally politically incorrect comments from Mulder apropos of Crissman’s kiddy-fiddling); with its snowy vistas, its glum and claustrophobic interiors, and its determination to meet thorny and existential concerns head-on, this is ‘The X-Files’ as if directed by Ingmar Bergman.

The usual Mulder/Scully belief/rationalism debate is fragmented by Crissman. Mulder is inexplicably drawn to him, perhaps viewing him as a last chance to prove to his still sceptical former paymasters the truth of his convictions; or perhaps recognising in Crissman a guilt and self-loathing that mirrors Mulder’s lifelong state of mind stemming from his inability to save his sister. Scully on the other hand is utterly repulsed by Crissman. Yet Crissman’s “visions”, which lead the FBI agents to a series of grisly discoveries, proved geographically accurate if frustratingly vague in other respects. There’s enough that’s tangible to fire Mulder’s beliefs and enough vagary to shore up Scully’s pragmatism. Until, that is, Crissman makes an off-handed comment to Scully which resonates in her dispute with the hospital’s administration over whether to continue treatment on a young boy whose chances of survival are minimal.

The film shifts between Crissman/Mulder, Scully/her patient, and a narrative strand involving stem cell research and illegal organ harvesting that coheres these various aspects. In its final act, ‘I Want to Believe’ strays into ‘Hostel’-lite territory, complete with eastern European villains straight out of central casting. At this point Crissman fades into the background as comprehensively as Scully did earlier, and the nature of his involvement – mystic or fraud, unforgivable pederast or redeemed visionary? – is never fully settled upon. But of course it wouldn’t be; this is an X-File after all, and while the truth might well be out there, concrete proof is considerably harder to come by. The difference is: what’s dark and disturbing about this X-File derives from the recesses of human psyche rather than aliens or the unexplained.

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