The Last Sin Eater
Director : Michael Landon Jr.
Screenplay : Brian Bird and Michael Landon Jr. (based on the novel by Francine Rivers)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2007
Stars : Louise Fletcher (Miz Elda), Henry Thomas (Man of God), Liana Liberato (Cadi Forbes), Soren Fulton (Fagan Kai), A.J. Buckley (Angor Forbes), Stewart Finlay-McLennan (Brogan Kai), Peter Wingfield (The Sin Eater), Elizabeth Lackey (Fia Forbes), Thea Rose (Lilybet)
The Last Sin Eater takes place in Appalachia in the mid-19th century, where recent immigrants have still maintained their Scottish accents and Celtic religious beliefs, including the idea of the Sin Eater, an outcast from society whose job is to take on all the sins of those who die. During a funeral, the Sin Eater, whose long black hooded robe gives him a Grim Reaper-rish appearance, mysteriously emerges from isolation and eats a piece of bread and drinks from a flask that have been laid out on the body, thus absorbing all that person's sins and allowing him or her to move on to a peaceful afterlife.
The film's heroine is a little girl named Cadi (Liana Liberato) who seeks out the Sin Eater despite his pariah status (villagers are not even allowed to look at him when he enters the cemetery during a funeral) because she bears a heavy weight of guilt that she hopes he can take from her. The exact nature of her sin is kept hidden for a good portion of the film, but we know it has somehow driven a wedge between her and her parents (A.J. Buckley and Elizabeth Lackey). Cadi enlists the help of both an elder woman in the village (Louise Fletcher) and a young boy named Fagan (Soren Fulton), whose brutal and uncompromising father, Brogan Kai (Stewart Finlay-McLennan), is their village's unofficial leader.
Cadi does eventually find the Sin Eater, but he is unable to help her for reasons that she at first does not understand. She is eventually lead to truth from a traveling evangelist (Henry Thomas), who has taken up residence by a river near the village for the purpose of proclaiming the Word of God to anyone who will hear him. Not surprisingly, initially it is children, Cadi and Fagan, who are open to his message. The evangelist's very presence enrages Brogan, who has a vested interest in maintaining the village's religious status quo, especially as it relates to the Sin Eater. As the film progresses, it becomes clear the entire Sin Eater enterprise is a sham, a spiritual façade that has been deployed for personal and political reasons.
The Last Sin Eater was coproduced by Daystar Television, a quickly growing Christian TV network, which is usually a sign that it will only be of interest to those Christians who believe that the only acceptable entertainment is entertainment that sermonizes. Such associations also usually signal a low budget and lack of artistry, as too many Christian movies feel that good intentions far outweigh the need for aesthetic creativity and quality.
However, director Michael Landon Jr. (son of the Highway to Heaven star) has a notable visual sensibility as he allows his camera to soak up the natural beauty of the sun-bathed Appalachian mountains and gives the scenes involving the Sin Eater an aura of expressive horror menace. The film's worst aesthetic sins are a few digitally enhanced shots that are embarrassingly bad, as well a complete lack of verisimilitude when it comes to depicting a small, backwoods Welsh community (everyone looks absurdly scrubbed and pampered, as if the filmmakers were afraid that their audience might be put off by the presence of dirt). The screenplay by Brian Bird and Landon Jr. (based on the novel by Francine Rivers) finds a workable balance between the story's inherent intrigue and its fundamental message about Christian salvation without letting one overwhelm the other. To be sure, the film will play well to the Christian audience--it ends with dramatic slow motion shots of a river baptism, after all--but the story has enough mystery and drama to keep the attention of any audience.
However, The Last Sin Eater is also unafraid to explore some of the darker aspects of humanity, especially how people can misuse religion. It is interesting that a religious film would explore so candidly the notion of how organized religion can be used to mask political goals and personal vendettas, even if, in the end, the unmasking of the Sin Eater tradition as not just false, but thoroughly corrupt, only strengthens the film's message of Christianity as the one true faith.
Copyright ©2007 James Kendrick
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