'The Skeleton Key': Boo on the Bayou

Kate Hudson plays a live-in nurse whose snooping around her employer's rickety mansion unlocks a Pandora's box.
Kate Hudson plays a live-in nurse whose snooping around her employer's rickety mansion unlocks a Pandora's box. (By Merrick Morton -- Universal Studios)
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 12, 2005

Kate Hudson plays the only 25-year-old woman in America who doesn't own a cell phone in "The Skeleton Key," a diverting, stylish thriller that, despite pivoting on that and other whoppers, deserves credit for creating an authentic, original vibe. Steeped in the distinctive roux of race and religion that permeates New Orleans and its outlying parishes, "The Skeleton Key" has a swampy, soulful authenticity -- and some surprisingly good performances -- placing it a notch above such mediocrities as the recent "Dark Water."

With its ghosts, attractive young woman in jeopardy and near-constant rainstorms, this movie is just as psychologically spooky and atmospheric as that earlier summer film. But with its evocative setting, a coolly restrained leading performance from Hudson and a truly wonderful supporting turn from Gena Rowlands, "The Skeleton Key" is way hipper. If it finally succumbs to third-act absurdities -- the inevitable stumbling block for today's adult horror movies -- at least it gives viewers a good ride, one propelled not by script doctors or computer-generated whammies but by immersing the audience in the superstitions, totems and visual vernacular of its own world.

That is the world of "hoodoo," a folk religion of the American South that combines the belief systems of voodoo, Christianity and Native American practices and that depends heavily on conjuring, magic spells and those supernatural forces that can be classified under the heading of "mojo." This is the world that Caroline Ellis (Hudson) unwittingly enters when she responds to a classified ad for a hospice nurse at a decrepit plantation outside New Orleans. There, she is hired by Violet Devereaux (Rowlands) to care for her ailing husband Ben (an unrecognizable John Hurt), who has suffered a debilitating stroke after a visit to the house's attic. Violet makes a great ceremony of explaining that she had keys made to all the rooms of the house, which sags with shabby elegance on the lip of a moss-draped bayou; she gives Caroline the skeleton key, which opens every door, including the one to the attic.

Of course, Caroline wouldn't want to go to the attic. None of us would want to go to the attic. But, like her inexplicable failure to sign up with Cingular, Verizon or other cell-phone provider, Caroline insists on going up to the attic, and once there, to explore a mysterious secret room beyond a locked door. "The Skeleton Key," like its predecessors, depends on a heroine who is not only gorgeous but either very brave or very stupid. Hudson, who dials back her native, Goldie-given charm here to give Caroline a no-nonsense brusqueness, manages to convincingly convey a fearless bullheadedness rather than less sympathetic naivete.

Caroline's unsmiling reserve -- she might be the chilliest caregiver in the history of the hospice movement -- gives "The Skeleton Key" a certain dignity and even humor during some priceless exchanges between Caroline and Violet. Rowlands delivers a quietly hilarious performance as the gruff, chain-smoking doyenne, and her Louisiana accent is flawless when delivering the movie's best dialogue (the same, unfortunately, cannot be said of Peter Sarsgaard, who is far less convincing as Violet's handsome young estate lawyer). "You're written on, ain't you?" she asks Caroline, by way of asking whether the young woman has any tattoos. "Not where you can see," the latter parries.

As the two women's tart repartee gives way to a steely battle of the wills, disbelief must eventually be suspended (has a hairpin ever really successfully unlocked a door?). But the appeal of "The Skeleton Key" lies not in its plot but in its attention to detail, and the way director Iain Softley (still on probation for "K-PAX," but nevertheless the guy who did "Backbeat") luxuriates in the deeply textured sights and sounds of Louisiana. From the mysterious lines of red brick dust that greet visitors to back-country homes to the bones, shells, beads and icons that decorate nearly every location, he takes full advantage of the region's rich indigenous culture. That appreciation extends as well to the movie's soundtrack, which is composed of vintage blues and contemporary hip-hop, as well as a fictional hoodoo ritual that could pass for an Alan Lomax field recording. ("The Skeleton Key" was written by Ehren Kruger, who knows his way around a thriller, having penned "Arlington Road" and both "Ring" movies.)

If the action gets a little out of hand, "The Skeleton Key" admittedly features a nifty final twist, one that most viewers surely won't see coming. Even more gratifying, when they find themselves mentally going over Caroline's steps in order to find portents of what finally transpires, they will be reentering a world worth coming back to.

The Skeleton Key (104 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for violence, disturbing images, some partial nudity and thematic material.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company