The Skeleton Key: Okra Gumbo

Year Released: 2005
Directed by: Iain Softley
Starring: Kate Hudson, Gena Rowlands, John Hurt, Peter Sarsgaard, Joy Bryant
(PG-13, 104 min.)

"Superstition is the religion of feeble minds." Edmund Burke

Just like Mardi Gras' guilty pleasure. The Skeleton Key is akin to a McDonald’s double cheeseburger with a shake and fries. You enjoy each decadent mouthful, but in the end you feel bloated and empty at the same time. Or given the atmospheric locale, perhaps the more proper food analogy would be cracklin’s, a Louisiana inspired junk food, consisting of fried pieces of pork skin with attached underlying fat. Anyway you look at, not something you would find anywhere near the recommended food pyramid.

The Skeleton Key tells the tale of Caroline, (Kate Hudson) an idealistic young nurse who stumbles upon more than she expects when she takes on the hospice care of a stroke victim at the run down estate he shares with his wife of many years. The old house literally broadcasts its not very original evil omens to the audience – a chairs rocks all by itself on the breezeless, dilapidated front porch, faded wallpaper tells where each and every mirror has been removed, and most of all, the skeleton key that is supposed to unlock every room, will not open the hidden room in the attic. Why do we already know that Caroline will be determined to get in there? And what she finds will repel but not deter her from ferreting out its secrets?

Two fine veteran actors grace the swamp saga, Gena Rowlands (Violet) and John Hurt (Ben), a onetime member of the Royal Shakespeare Company and best known stateside for his title role in The Elephant Man. They both give credible performances, Hurt outshining Rowlands even though he hardly has a line, since his character is paralyzed by a stroke and reduced to writing messages on his bed linens, grasping his nurse’s wrist with pleading eyes, and generally looking mysteriously mournful.

With sighs of admiration or regretful contempt, depending on the critic, Rowlands has been compared to both Joan Crawford and Bette Davis in their swan song gothic roles. I view her understated performance more in line with Ruth Gordan’s Oscar winning role of amiably evil neighbor in Rosemary’s Baby. (Ironically, the role of Rosemary’s husband was played by Rowland’s late husband, the redoubtable John Cassavetes in that 1968 classic.)

Still more similarities between the two films emerge. Deals with the devil in sophisticated New York, it turns out, are not that different, when you get down to it, than these Hoodoo machinations in the bayous of Cajun country, although the brilliance of Rosemary’s Baby is that there everything seems so ordinary and prosaic, down to coven clan neighbor Gordon’s fretting about the marks Mia Farrow’s knife leave in her gleaming wood floors.

On the other hand, The Skeleton Key literally (it is the swamps, you know) drips with atmosphere, much of it clichéd and unrealistic. Roger Ebert has shrewdly noted that the creepy gas station where nubile hospice nurse Caroline (Kate Hudson) fills up her tank is peopled with requisite Southern Gothic cretins with not so subtle jars of dubious contents littering a ramshackle series of huts, whereas most residents of Louisiana get their gas like the rest of us --- at polished chains along the interstate.

The decaying mansion itself takes on a personality. “She wouldn’t understand the house,” Rowland’s Violet audibly protests (I fear too much) to the unctuous lawyer who ushers Caroline there for the job interview. Ancient pictures of the original owners merit a place next to Ben and Violet’s own photos on the hall table. And the absent mirrors are locked up in the attic, just as they were when Ben and Violet purchased the place back in 1962. Nor has Violet ever ventured into that locked cubicle, or wondered about it, she says with practiced nonchalance.

The somewhat unbelievable script is certainly a limitation, but a better lead could have carried it off. Nicole Kidman, the bearer of not just a single key, but a rattling set of them in the vastly superior The Others, filled the screen with a barely controlled electricity underneath the pallor of her prim skin. The alchemy of her dramatic presence transformed a somewhat far-fetched plot into pure gold.

Oh, that Kate Hudson could do the same! Part of the problem is a script that calls for her to be everything from a rock groupie who more or less ignores the suffering and death of her estranged father, next a guilt ridden hospice nurse intent on somehow making up for that, then a skeptic trying to understand the psychological underpinning of superstition, and abruptly, a full-fledged trembling believer. It isn’t helped by the fact that she is picture perfect pretty, down to her orthodontically enhanced straight teeth, and that the exasperated expression which occasionally marches across her face when she relaxes the mask of practiced earnestness, seems to fit a full fledged Valley Girl about to say “like” for the fortieth time. And somehow I doubt that she could schlep Ben’s dead weight to the estate’s shadowy locales with such ease, but here I am probably being overly picky.

So for a mere hour or two in the darkened cinema, suspend your disbelief, brace yourself for yet another Hollywood stereotyped skewering of all things Southern, and lap up the chicken blood and bottled body parts. What’s not to like?

—Kathy Borich

Film-Loving Foodie

The only time matron of the manor, Violet, condescends to eat with the hired help, as she obviously sees Carolyn, is one very tense dinner. By that time, both women fully understand each other – or at least Caroline thinks she does –and all is velvet-gloved pretense behind bloody clawed intent. Caroline tenaciously injects each sugar cube with nefarious liquid from her hypodermic only to be disappointed when Violet decides this one time she will drink her tea unsweetened.

For her part, Caroline toys with the gumbo while Violet whines on about how much trouble she has gone to to prepare this Cajun delicacy. The cat and mouse dinner is shrouded in the accoutrements of Old South graciousness, down to the fine linen and china, the whir of a ceiling fan stirring the fetid air while light and shadows play against faded wall paper, with just the promise of a thunderstorm in the distant sky.

Who will win the catfight: The matronly but “devoted” wife or the lithe young nurse? The old lioness or the untried cougar?

While you cogitate on the possibilities, why not treat yourself to some perfect gumbo, guaranteed to be deliciously free of any last minute ingredients, I promise.

I’ve chosen an okra gumbo because it is so easy to make, (no roux required) and perhaps because you have a few of those distinctly southern vegetables on hand right now. If you have the time, go to Chef Rick’s site to learn everything you every wanted to know about Cajuns and Creole cooking while you listen to some fantastic Cajun sounds.

Okra Gumbo

This gumbo uses okra as the thickener, so there's no roux. This is an easy and tasty gumbo for beginners to try.

  • 1 chicken, cut into serving pieces 
  • 4 quarts chicken stock 
  • 1 stick butter 
  • 2 pounds okra, sliced about 1/2 inch thick 
  • 1 large onion, chopped 
  • 1 green pepper, chopped 
  • 1 clove garlic, minced 
  • 1 1/2 cups fresh tomatoes, diced

Place chicken in large pot and cover with 4 quarts water. Bring to a boil, and then simmer until chicken is cooked. Drain water, allow to cool, and remove meat from bones in large pieces.

In the same pot, melt butter and sauté okra, onion and green pepper until translucent. Add garlic and cook for 2 minutes. Add chicken stock and tomatoes. Add shrimp and cook over medium heat for 30 minutes. Stir thoroughly. Serve with rice.

Makes 8 Servings

Recipe Source: Chef Rick