Consecration is a movie that seems like it's going to be riveting at the beginning. Then you get about halfway through and realize it's too muddled to be riveting. There's an alluring concept here. That concept gets buried under hazy religious philosophy that mixes awkwardly with a detective-style narrative and a desire to provide shock-horror beats. What could have been really special ends up just another generic thriller that's critical of the Catholic Church without fully delving into those criticisms.

The atheist lead character, played by Jena Malone, is named Grace. Women in movies about religion always seem to be named Grace. Their makers apparently think such symbolism is clever. She's a London eye doctor who travels to a Scottish convent after being told her brother may have been part of a murder-suicide there. The issue is that she doesn't believe he was capable of either side of that equation.

Not long after arriving, Grace meets the kindly Father Romero (Danny Houston), who vows to help her obtain answers. She'll need it, as weird hallucinations start taking place and she inexplicably passes out along the shore. The convent's Mother Superior (Janet Suzman) seems to be withholding information. She's certainly hiding Grace's clothing after that fainting spell, compelling this non-believer to dress like the nuns. If that sounds fishy, it is.

A murder mystery set at a convent could be intriguing. Consecration gets bogged down with too many half-baked plot strands unfolding simultaneously. There's the quest for a missing relic, a cop (Thoren Ferguson) looking into why the corpse of Grace's brother was cleaned before being reported, and a string of supernatural acts of violence aimed at nuns who get in Grace's way. The film is very inconsistent in tone, wavering between police procedural and religious horror. Director/co-writer Christopher Smith never figures out how to combine them smoothly, nor does he give either side the development it deserves. The procedural lacks the kind of mounting tension needed to pull us in, and the religious horror moments often come out of left field.

That's a shame because the movie looks terrific, with production design and cinematography that make the convent feel like a heavy, somber place. Jena Malone is always an appealing actress, and she invests Grace with a seriousness of purpose - and a bitterness toward Catholicism - that would make her an excellent protagonist in a better story. Danny Houston is also very good, leaving us nicely uncertain if Father Romero is as benevolent as he seems. And while they don't entirely mesh with everything else, the supernatural attacks are well-staged.

Consecration is difficult to follow because of its all-over-the-place nature. Insufficient time is spent developing any of its ideas, leaving it unclear what the larger point is. The title refers to a process of making something holy (like a church) or putting a person into a position of prominence (like being appointed bishop). What happens in the big finale is unholy, so what are we to take from it? That the Catholic Church is hypocritical and self-protecting? That it's willing to perpetuate evil to maintain power? Or, are we oddly to believe that the bad occurrences turn Grace into an unusual kind of believer? The fact that we don't know for sure when the credits start to roll is indicative of the problem.

out of four

Consecration is rated R for bloody violence. The running time is 1 hour and 30 minutes.