Thursday, February 08, 2007

The Last Sin Eater

By Graham H. Moes
Graybrook Film Critic

4 out of 5 stars

After The Nativity Story opened to nothing but the chirping of crickets over the Christmas holiday (way to support the home team, church folks), studios have to be confused – and nervous. After Passion of the Christ made a mint, several had just launched Christian divisions for the overlooked market. Then that market up and overlooked the sure-bet "prequel" to Passion.

Actually, I know they’re nervous. Just last month, one of Fox Faith’s first outings, the psycho-thriller Thr3e, was ruthlessly yanked from theaters less than two weeks out of the gate for failing to break the bank. It’ll be lucky to break even on DVD at this point.

Luckily, believers still brazen enough to claim they support "family entertainment" when it’s offered have a second chance to put their money where their mouth is. The Last Sin Eater, a film based on Francine Rivers’ best seller, opened in many mid-sized to larger markets nationwide Feb. 8.

Directed by veteran "Christian movie" helmer Michael Landon Jr., the story focuses on an isolated Welsh community in 1850’s Appalachia and the personal tragedy at the center of one family, a tragedy that’s left 10-year-old Cadi in desperate need of the "sin eater" – a shadowy figure in Welsh social tradition invoked to appear and voluntarily take the sins of the dearly departed upon his own damned soul.

Think you can see where this one’s headed already? You’re right. Sort of.

Like M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village – which I suspect inspired the film’s tone as much as anything in the book – there’s more going on than meets the eye in this sleepy cove of farmers, bee keepers and porch-settin’ old folks.

Tragedy runs deep in old school Appalachian bluegrass music, and one appeal of Sin Eater is watching the source material for some of those songs in the action. It’s an uplifting story ultimately, a catharsis mounted by the steady-handed Landon and a well-crafted screenplay.

At this level of the biz, of course, forget big-star name recognition. There’s Henry Thomas (E.T., All the Pretty Horses, Gangs of New York) and Academy Award winner Louise "Nurse Ratched" Fletcher, about as far from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest as humanly possible. But Thomas is a glorified cameo, and Fletcher is hardly Oscar-worthy here, laboring through a measured Gaelic brogue more Swedish Chef than Old Country Welsh.

But there the criticisms end.

The cast is strategically comprised of actors you’ll recognize but probably need to figure out why. With one or two exceptions, they’re stellar – particularly the Sin Eater himself.

Then there’s Liana Liberato as Cadi. A relative newcomer with a handful of previous TV roles under her belt, she breezes through a demanding role that, while never as high-octane as anything Dakota Fanning has done, suggests she’s as much a natural.

Liberato plays the pre-pubescent lost soul with conviction, giving the film its greatest strength – the ability to convince us of sin’s reality and the downward tug it can have on any life, no matter how young or otherwise "innocent."

More than the tug sin can have, it’s the tug it should have that modern viewers most take away from the experience. The power of Christ to heal the broken heart is largely lost today, even on Christians like me, in a culture that denies any need for healing in the first place.

But I can hear you now… "Sin and tragedy? Sign me up!"

Happy to report, Liberato also nails the other side of her character, a Tom and Betsy-like relationship with fellow spiritual traveler Fagan (Soren Fulton, Thunderbirds). The spunkiness of their unspoken crush is fun to watch and provides a nice emotional counterpoint to the rest.

Did I mention the "purple mountain majesties" cinematography? Worth the price of admission, particularly if you live somewhere currently under three feet of snow.

One minor quibble.

I haven’t read the book so I can’t say for sure, but from conversations with those who have, it seems they jazzed the ending a wee bit here. And in a way that – for a knee-jerk conservative like me – borders on the sort of Dances With Wolves revisionism to the American experience that never fails to work me into a frenzy.

Granted, I’m a right-wing nut job (and former history major) who often sees that stuff where never intended. Nor did I approach frenzy status. Whatever its politics, this late-inning twist to the story adds nothing to the more powerful, more real, story of Cadi and her family.

Still, a solid film recommended on multiple levels. So get out there and support this film before they stop making them again.

Next month, a review of Fox Faith’s next release, The Ultimate Gift.

To find a theater showing The Last Sin Eater near you, visit

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