Point of Origin (2002) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

Warning: this entire review is one big spoiler.

Point of Origin, an HBO film, is the (mostly) true story of a legendary arson investigator, John Orr, who turned out to have started many of the fires he investigated. At one time, many people believed that he had a nearly supernatural gift for finding the point of origin and the incendiary devices. As it turns out, he was not a genius. He just knew where to look and what to look for. He was eventually nabbed because he had been writing a work of fiction about the very situation he was involved in - an arson specialist who turned out to be investigating crimes he himself had committed. Although the only physical evidence was a single fingerprint from similar crimes committed years earlier, prosecutors said that the crimes in the novel were extremely similar to real-life crimes, and included details of those crimes which could only have been known by the arsonist. A study of Orr's cases also showed that Orr once arrived at a fire before he could have known about it from the dispatcher. On the basis of this largely circumstantial case, Orr was convicted and sentenced to four consecutive life sentences, although he never admitted committing the crimes.

There have been various theories about why Orr committed the crimes, assuming that he did. The prevalent theory is that he was creating a scenario in which he would be a hero. In a smaller sense, he was committing arson in fairly complicated ways that puzzled other investigators, but which Orr seemed to solve effortlessly, thus establishing his unrivaled mastery of his profession. In a greater sense, he was creating a super villain nemesis for himself, thus turning himself into the super hero needed to defeat the fictional criminal genius. This was not only stoking his ego, but was fanning his creative flame for his novel as well.

I don't really like one gimmick the film used to present the events. We see John Orr working as a tireless investigator, and we see a red haired man actually committing the crimes. Of course, the purpose of this split personality device is to allow the events to unfold as a mystery in which the viewer originally has no idea that the arsonist and investigator are the same person. In that sense it serves an important purpose in the script. The problem with this gimmick is that it leads the audience to draw the wrong conclusions even after the real criminal is revealed. Because the redhead matches perfectly with two sketches made from eyewitness accounts, a viewer must conclude that either (1) Orr is really not the arsonist, after all; or (2) Orr committed the crimes in disguise.

In the last analysis, neither of those solutions was correct. At the conclusion of the film we are led to believe that Orr did commit the crimes, for the same reasons that the jury convicted him, and because the last thing we hear is a TV anchor's voice reporting that the number of arsons in the L.A. area dropped by some astronomical percentage after Orr was incarcerated, followed by Orr's own voice saying "it's about ego (echo) ego."

Then what the hell was the deal with that redhead?

He was there as the result of the film having adopted a very obscure literary device. When the film is over, we realize that half of what we just watched was a movie about the real-life investigation, and the other half was a film adaptation of Orr's actual novel, the scenes he was picturing in his mind as he typed up the book which would eventually get him convicted. (That book did eventually get published, by the way.) These scenes were similar, but not identical, to real life, and thus were able to be woven seamlessly into the actual events. The redhead was from the portion of the film which pictorialized the novel. He was a fictional villain created by Orr the author. Looking back on the film after having watched it, it is not always possible to conclude which events were created by Orr the arsonist and which were fictional embellishments created by Orr the novelist.

I found the fictional arsonist device quite confusing, but I will certainly have to give props to the writer and the director for a very creative interpretation of the project. Whether I like it or not, they put a lot of thought into presenting the facts in a way that would allow the case to be cinematically interesting, rather than just droning on like a docudrama. The director also brought all sorts of fancy cinematic tricks to the table, in an attempt to get deep inside Orr's head. In fact, the revelation of Orr's thought process is quite complex, because at first we think we are getting into the head of a truly gifted investigator, but gradually we see that we are getting into the head of a novelist who romanticizes his investigatory acumen, and who keeps moving the fantasy farther and farther from reality.

The director is Tom Sigel, whose directorial resumé is nothing special at all (this is his only solo non-documentary), but who is one of the most gifted and creative cinematographers of our time. Here is a partial list of films in which he has been cinematographer.

That list includes good films and bad, but the cinematography is outstanding in all of them. He is currently working on three more projects with high visibility: Logan's Run, Superman Returns, and The Brothers Grimm.

Obviously, Sigel felt that he had learned from some masters, especially Bryan Singer, and wanted a chance to direct on his own. HBO gave him that chance. If the result of his maiden solo effort was not an award winner, neither was it a failure, and it was consistently inventive. He also picked the right stars and got some fine work from his actors, including subtle and controlled performances from two actors who are normally used to flashier and more effusive roles, Ray Liotta and John Leguizamo.

Whither Sigel's directing career? As The Terminator would say, "He'll be back."


DVD INFO (leftmost link)

  • widescreen anamorphic 1.85:1
  • full-length director commentary
  • The Center Link: Points of Origin is the work of fiction actually written by the convicted arsonist who was also a fire investigator. Many people believe it is simply a factional version of the crimes pictured in this film.
  • The rightmost link: Fire Lover is Joseph Wambaugh's non-fictional version of the events pictured in the film.


Ileana Douglas showed her breasts in a dark sex scene, then again in a see-through top after the sex.

The Critics Vote ...

  • No major reviews online

Miscellaneous ...

  • As always Court TV did a bang-up job on this case.

The People Vote ...

  • No theatrical release. Made for cable
The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-.

Based on this description, it's a C. Interesting interpretation - blending real events and a work of fiction about those events - as written by the criminal.

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