Donald Sutherland still seems to be suffering from his brush with the Body Snatchers in his role as the bland, befuddled and barely audible Father Bob Koesler, a parish priest turned detective in "The Rosary Murders." And yet his monastic muttering and moral puttering holds your interest somehow. That bug-eyed sincerity, the Sutherland signature that held us in "Klute," is working here.
Sutherland's Koesler is a priest who would pique the pope -- a liberal, gentle loner whose temperament and leanings conflict with those of his blustering, narrow-minded superior Father Nabors, played curtly by Charles Durning. Nabors is the cocksure, dogma-spouting counterpoint to Koesler's struggle with self-doubt and church doctrine. These theological undercurrents make for a better mystery, adding some edge to this contemplative, rather sleepy screenplay based on the novel by ex-priest William Kienzle.
It begins when Koesler, editor of a Detroit Catholic newspaper, agrees to help the police solve a bizarre murder mystery. Someone is killing priests and nuns -- all found clutching black rosaries, the criminal's calling card. Like the hero of Hitchcock's "I Confess," the priest finds himself in a pickle when he hears the killer's confession but cannot reveal the man's identity. Every time another worshiper dies, Koesler shares the responsibility but refuses to break his vows of secrecy. His only prayer -- to learn how the maniac chooses his victims.
The story, scripted by thriller author Elmore Leonard and director Fred Walton, tippy-toes around the subject of our hero's celibacy with implications about his relationship with a Detroit Free Press reporter. Belinda Bauer, with her jackhammer delivery, plays the lapsed Catholic reporter who falls in love with Koesler after he mumbles in an interview. They go out for a drink one evening and suddenly it's the next day over coffee at a nearby greasy spoon.
She moves to another town, but leaves a message with her answering service that she loves him. He sighs and goes on sleuthing about the creepy corridors of the Holy Redeemer complex.
The movie has a gritty, junkyard-dog look to it. It's almost as visually dreary as "The Name of the Rose," but as your holy thrillers go, something of a Hail Mary.
The Rosary Murders, at area theaters, is rated R for profanity and violence.