Who could have guessed that an ordinary guy like Ed Harris would have the acting chops to take an otherwise run-of-the-mill film like "The Third Miracle," opening today at the Charles, and make it quite entertaining?
Well, if you've been paying attention, Harris' gifts have been increasingly apparent. He's captured Oscar and Golden Globe nominations for his roles in "The Truman Show" (1998) and "Apollo 13," (1995) after all, and he even managed to make a sorry film like "Milk Money" (1994) partially worthwhile.
But, as most of Harris' work has been in supporting roles -- usually as the guy with quiet inner strength standing to the side making a good movie even better -- the obvious question is whether he could be a headliner.
The answer, at least in "The Third Miracle," is a resounding yes. Harris, with the help of Anne Heche, pulls the movie along by the scruff of its neck and makes the viewer care, which is what a good actor does.
As Frank Shore, Harris gets one of the more shopworn of roles, the priest who questions the value of his vows and seeks solace in the bottom of a bottle and away from the bosom of the parish. (Don't you wish just once that a wayward priest looked somewhere else besides a fifth of Jack Daniel's in one of these movies?)
Shore is a sort of church investigator who, in the 1970s, is sent to a Chicago parish to investigate claims that a statue is crying the blood of a deceased local woman whose works were so selfless that she should be nominated for sainthood.
The film's title refers to the Catholic tradition that someone nominated for sainthood must have participated in at least two miracles and preferably a third. Shore's search is not only for that third miracle, but also for his own redemption.
Shore's anguish is made palpable by Harris' skill. In one scene, Shore confesses to another priest, saying: "How does faith get away from you? I'll give up anything, everything. I just want it all to be true." Left in other hands, this could be hackneyed, but Harris makes Shore's pain consistently honest.
Meanwhile, Heche also provides nuance as Roxanna, the abandoned daughter of the woman who is nominated for sainthood.
While the rest of the community sees her late mother as an icon, Roxanna knows, from painful experience, that she was deeply flawed.
Heche makes Roxanna's solitude true and real, and she and Harris make the inevitable, though unnecessary, romantic angle a bit easier to swallow.
Director Agnieszka Holland ("Europa, Europa," "Angry Harvest") does a fine job of extracting as much story as possible out of the faces of the actors. The screenplay, co-written by John Romano and Richard Vetere, who wrote the novel the film is based on, has its holes but is bailed out by the quiet brilliance of Harris and Heche.
'The Third Miracle'
Starring Ed Harris, Anne Heche, Charles Haid and Jean-Louis Roux
Directed by Agnieszka Holland
Rated R (adult themes, language, some gore)
Running time 119 minutes
Released by Sony Pictures Classics
Sun score ***