Book Review - Holy Smoke

This article is an electronic version of an article originally published in Cultic Studies Journal, 2000, Volume 17, pages 205-211. Please keep in mind that the pagination of this electronic reprint differs from that of the bound volume. This fact could affect how you enter bibliographic information in papers that you may write.

Book Review - Holy Smoke. 

Produced by Jane Chapman, directed by Jane Campion, written by Anna Campion and Jane Campion, photography by Dion Beebe, music by Angelo Badalamenti, distributed by Miramax Films. Released 1999-2000. Rated R for nudity, sex, profanity and sexual violence. Running time: 1 hour, 54 minutes

It may have been two or three years ago since I first heard the buzz about research Jane Campion conducted for a film about deprogramming a cult member. At the time I was still deeply involved in that milieu as a professional exit counselor. After the film’s initial release in Europe, Australia, and selected cities in the USA at the end of 1999, reactions were mixed. Some criticized Campion’s quirky portrayal of a coercive deprogramming event as “ridiculous.”

One reviewer for Time Magazine saw the film as a dark but artsy, “feminist parable” wrapped around a clash of wills. He appeared to like it. Some Australians I know did not appreciate the apparently senseless mockery of an Aussie family. In one scene, a live sheep passes for a coffee table. Heated reactions came, as one might expect, from counter-cult people who have tried for decades to promote a legal, benign approach to intervention that came to be called “exit counseling.” However, Campion knew that some exit counselors, sometimes lapsed into use of security guards and “safe houses,” just as deprogrammers had done in the past. So her deprogrammer is called an “exit counselor,” and Holy Smoke utilizes the more dramatic, coercive model of cult intervention.

Theaters in my area of Philadelphia did not show Holy Smoke until mid-February. Ironically, as fate would have it, I flew to Australia at the end of January to help a family with an intervention—my twelfth or thirteenth trip down under on such missions. There I found time to see Holy Smoke on its home turf. I went with my cousin, who like me is in her early fifties, and with her adult daughter. I wanted their opinion. At this date the film was not doing well at the box office—relatively few theaters in Australia were carrying it, and the impressive Crunulla Cinema Centre sold only 8 or 9 tickets to the show we attended. Promotional posters, tongue-in-cheek, say: “Sex captive in desert hideaway…young beauty seduced by macho American twice her age.”

The film portrays the dark passage to self-knowledge of a young Australian woman, Ruth, impressively played by Kate Winslet. Her Sydney-based, dysfunctional family hears that Ruth joined a guru’s cult in India. They seek help from a local Jewish cult expert who directs them to hire “the best” in P. J. Waters (Harvey Keitel), an American “exit counselor.” P.J. gets “10,000 dollars” to take the case.

The movie opens with a dramatic flow of travel scenes of Ruth in India with her girlfriend. Campion captures some of colorful, people-rich New Delhi. A curious Indian man standing behind Ruth on a crowded bus sneaks a hand to feel the foreigner’s blonde hair. She is not amused. Ruth appears to be a spacey, impressionable girl at this stage, curious about some happy western girls dressed in saris. So we are not too surprised that she falls in love with a holy man, Baba, after encountering his gaze at his ashram. Ruth is immediately smitten by an electric experience illustrated by psychedelic imagery. Her friend, with her the whole time, reacts with alarm, and she cannot persuade Ruth to leave the place. Back in Sydney, the friend tells Ruth’s family what happened and why Ruth will not come home.

They seek advice from an Australian expert who advises Ruth’s mother to go to India to entice her daughter home with a story that Ruth’s father had a major stroke. She goes, and here is where the movie begins to get silly, punning on stereotypes about Indian culture, the magic, hypnotic power of a guru, and the clueless parents of a cult member. The mother, like Edith Bunker on an alien planet, goes it alone in chaotic New Delhi. She visits her daughter who now has a new Hindu name. The stroke story doesn’t work with Ruth, who has more important things on her mind, like worshiping Baba in person.

The mother agrees to stay a while to visit the ashram, but first she must bathe and wash her hair. No one can be in Baba’s presence smelling of perfume, shampoo, or deodorant. Baba is based partly on a notorious guru, now dead, who was known to have serious allergies and could not tolerate chemical odors. The mother notices she has to endure a sniff test at the gate, and this startles her. “I do not want to be treated like a dog.” She turns in disgust, runs toward her hotel, but on the way has an asthma attack and cannot breath. A crowd of Indians causes her to panic even more as they grope stupidly to help her. In one the funnier scenes, they carry and dump mom into a cab. Ruth decides to escort her fragile mother home to Sydney.

When P.J. Waters appears, my cousin laughed as she remembered me in a similar outfit when I arrived once in Sydney. My cousin asks, “Is that supposed to be you?” Who knows—Campion researched the stories of many people, deprogrammers and deprogrammees, to create her satirical, composite characters and scenes—of that much I am aware. My first initials are “J. P”…. nah, a mere ego projection. Waters is a late middle-aged American who does not mind boasting about his “190” successful cases and low rate of recidivism. He dyes his longish hair black, sports a mustache, soul patch, and arrives in Sydney dressed in a standard black sport coat, jeans, black shirt, black cowboy boots and mirror sunglasses—his basic costume through half the movie.

In a word, Waters is sleazy. He is also very smooth and cocky, a seasoned veteran of intervention, already living his next challenge, quickly evaluating his task, being decisive. Waters is shocked to discover from his colleague, the local cult expert, that his scheduled assistant was not available. With no good alternative, Waters ponders going it alone with inexperienced family and hired guards. He spells out his “three day” process that begins with isolating the cult member, then gaining rapport, and next breaking down devotion to the group or guru with skillful dialog and video tapes. I recognize a parody of what many exit counselors say, but I also recognize an older deprogramming model shaping up, complete with a dramatic kidnapping scene.

The central theme is set: the deprogrammer and the cult member are to meet one on one in a battle of wills and skills. After Ruth arrives at an outback “halfway house” [in actual cases, this would be called a “safe house”] to meet her ailing father, she realizes soon enough he is not sick. Relatives and hired men surround her, including her gay brother (who shows up in several scenes with his lover) to convince her to meet with Waters for three days. In her frustration, she lashes out at her father, scooping his toupee off his head. Surrounded by her weird bunch of captives, seeing no way out, she agrees to stay “for three days.”

Alone in the “halfway house,” a remote cabin located at Wee Waa [a real place in New South Wales] with his client, Waters begins his deprogramming magic, weaving clever, worn phrases through Ruth’s naïve retorts. He manages to open her curiosity about him and to get her talking. An exit counselor’s worst nightmare is a passive-aggressive client who will show no reaction and say nothing for days on end, but Ruth accommodates this stage of Waters’ plan. She is hostile, insidiously seeking her strengths and his weaknesses, but Waters expects as much. He calmly proceeds, citing Hindu scripture as easily as Socrates to counter Ruth’s objections. Waters’ character is shallow, however, and never delivers the texture and integrity we might expect from “the best.” The dialog is choppy leaving too much to the viewer to fill in. Campion tentatively affords Waters clever lines to help flesh out his two-dimensional personality. He succumbs, for example, to the sexy wiles of Ruth’s sister-in-law when she arrives at the cabin one night to deliver food, coffee, and oral sex. The sister-in-law, Yvonne, played by Sophie Lee, comes off as a star struck P.J. fan from the moment they meet at the airport. She readily spills out her problems with sexual fantasies to the superficially interested Waters. The moment they embrace, Yvonne asks, “Do you have a website”? Funny, insider humor, as many exit counselors, me included, have websites.

Thus, we learn in Campion style that Waters is a lecher. Despite the deprogrammer’s effort to end her devotion to Baba, Ruth appears to work out her Baba obsession in her own mysterious way. We see her white devotee dress burning in one dramatic image in the night outside the cabin. By what appears to be the second or third day at the cabin, she senses that Waters is a pathetic, “dirty old man,” and she even gets him to admit it after they engage in clumsy passion and intercourse. The turning point for this first sexual encounter occurs after Ruth wanders outside nude (sari now burned), confused and broken in spirit. She walks on smooth white rocks strewn in sharp “bull dust” (Aussie-speak for that harsh terrain). Waters had taken her shoes to keep her from running. He approaches her with compassion at first. She faces him and listlessly offers sexual contact. He states he never had sex with a client, and he will not break his rule. Ruth then urinates down her legs. She is emotionally lost and vulnerable, in need of comfort, and moves to embrace her nemesis. He succumbs.

After intercourse, Waters is a changed man, hardly keeping to his intended task, now entranced with his potential lover. But Ruth sees past him, and her tryst with him soon turns into a cruel psychological game to break him down.

In what passes for a climactic scene in this film, Waters lies down and asks Ruth to do her “worst” to him. She chooses to make him wear an ill-fitting, red dress that hardly covers his groin, and she paints his lips red. Then she guides him onto his knees, drops her nickers for him, and directs him to slowly---well, you get the image. More of the oral thing. Later, while the used-up exit counselor sleeps in the red dress, we see Ruth wrapping books with plastic bags around her feet so she can walk on the sharp, reddish sand. Campion mischievously has Ruth use the exit counselor’s reference books. Waters wakes in time to see Ruth leave. Still in the red dress, he manages to put on one boot to begin his pursuit. He catches her and they begin to scuffle. A frustrated Waters finally unleashes his macho by knocking Ruth unconscious to the ground with a hard punch to the face.

By this time the security crew, in another location, sort out that Waters is having sex with his client, so they go in a truck to confront him. Yvonne is with them when they pull up to Waters, who now drives a large sedan with huge, decorative antlers on top. Waters tells them that Ruth escaped into the desert. Yvonne, yet attracted to Waters, proceeds to get into the car with him despite his mild protests. She is only slightly amazed at his disheveled appearance in a red dress. As they drive away she hears pounding from the “boot” (trunk) of the car. She demands they stop. Yvonne discovers Ruth inside. It is unclear if Waters thought he had killed her.

They leave a beaten Waters to fend for himself in the desert. In another scene we see Waters fallen face down, exhausted. He stares deliriously into the distance and “sees” Ruth transformed into a six-armed, Hindu deity. Later, Ruth and companions find him by the road and toss him into the back of the open truck. As they drive along, Ruth glances back at their quarry. She has a change of heart. Perhaps she recalls the message, which he wrote in reverse on her forehead earlier: She read, “be kind,” in the mirror. She joins him in the back and holds him.

One year later we learn that Ruth’s father divorced and married his mistress. Ruth and her mother moved to India to work at an animal rescue mission. P.J. Waters is married to his assistant/girlfriend and they have baby twins. He has become a novelist. He writes to Ruth to tell her so, and he expresses his constant devotion to her. Campion’s ending has the taste of a resolution with happy endings, but like the rest of the film it feels inconsistent and forced.

Ads for the movie promote it as a front-page, tabloid feature, so we might place it in the dark humor category in which Pulp Fiction set a dubious but potent standard: Pulp fictions may shock us, but they never deliver deep messages.

Holy Smoke attempts to ride its title toward a message that everything that should be holy in one girl’s life—family, friend, guru, and savior--goes up in smoke. Ruth is virtually the only fleshed out character, and the film asks us to take her seriously--somehow. I was not sure anything she does or says is meant to be funny or a parody—all the characters in Pulp Fiction remain consistently shallow. Ruth’s nemesis turned suitor is a trashy parody of the myth of a deprogrammer. Waters could amuse us if Ruth were less “real.” The feminist emphasis is clear in Ruth who views sex as not necessarily for making offspring, but rather for exploring self and pleasure with either gender. We see her drunk, for example, in a dance club scene in which she dances with and sensually kisses a woman in view of an envious Waters. Later, Waters saves Ruth from two blokes she engages who take her outside to apparently rape her. These provocative scenes appear forced in the film.

Did my Aussie relatives like the film? No. They felt it was a pointless embarrassment. Neither did I like it, but I can hardly be objective. Nothing Campion put into this project is without foundation as stories abound among cult members about what “deprogrammers” do, how much they charge, and how they behave badly. I’m sure every exit counselor will have the nagging suspicion, as I did, that Campion would rather we raise kids and write novels. She manages to offend everyone, even the audience, except herself in Ruth.

Joe Szimhart

Cult Information Specialist and Consultant

Pottstown, PA

Cultic Studies Journal, Vol. 17 2000