The Last Sin Eater marks the latest release from FoxFaith, a subdivision of 20th Century Fox designed to create “morally driven, family-friendly programming.” Although the word “faith” could be used with regard to Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism and just about any other “ism” on Earth, the Fox Corporation clearly has economic designs on one faith and one faith only. All FoxFaith films must “have overt Christian content or be derived from the work of a Christian author.” Perhaps you caught FoxFaith’s theological thriller Thr3e earlier this year. Or not.
The Last Sin Eater is based on the book by romance-writer-turned-Christian-author Francine Rivers and is directed by Michael Landon Jr. The son of cheerful “Little House on the Prairie” star and bigtime Jesus booster Michael Landon has previously directed a string of Pioneer-era religious films for the Hallmark Channel (starting with 2003’s Love Comes Softly and ending with 2006’s Love’s Abiding Joy). Junior must have learned a thing or two from dear old Pa, because he demonstrates a genuine flair for the filmic arts in The Last Sin Eater.
Despite a modest budget (around $2 million), the film is slickly and evocatively shot in rural Utah. (Is there any other kind of Utah?) Landon provides some moody visuals, especially in the film’s darker and more haunting segments. The script is set in mid-1800s Appalachia and the filmmakers have done a credible job of recreating an isolated 19th-century mountain community. The Welsh immigrant accents are sometimes a bit tangled and difficult to understand, but the film gets full credit for transporting us to a different time and place without looking too awful much like a made-for-TV movie.
The story centers on the ancient religious practice of “sin eating.” Imported largely (though hardly exclusively) from the Celtic tribes of England and Wales, the ceremony involves the hiring of some poor wretch to consume a bit of bread and drink from a dead body just prior to burial--the theory being that a person’s sins would be removed and placed into the body of the sin eater. Some pope eventually condemned the practice, mostly because it involved absolution without the use of a priest. The Catholic Church has never taken kindly to being cut out of the loop.
Our main character here is 10-year-old Cadi Forbes (newby Liana Liberato), who becomes fascinated with the ritual of sin eating when she witnesses it being practiced on her recently deceased grandmother. Despite her young age, Cadi is lugging around some world-class guilt in connection to her baby sister’s untimely death. She figures the Sin Eater can cure her of it and goes on a journey to discover the identity of this mythical outcast.
Though the film ultimately looks on sin eating as a pointless pagan ritual, it doesn’t go out of its way to condemn it. In fact, the film’s central theme of absolution is rather dependent on it as a symbol. In her own way, Cadi is a sort of sin eater, absorbing guilt for something she hasn’t really done. In fact, she isn’t the only one here carrying a heavy burden. Cadi’s quest puts her in contact with members of her community both helpful (Louise Fletcher, Nurse Ratched herself, as a kindly old widow) and harmful (TV actor Stewart Finlay-McLellan as a bullying community leader)--all of whom tie into the theme of sin and redemption (or, more secularly, guilt and forgiveness). For most of the run time, it’s absorbing stuff.
About an hour in, though, the film gets down to preaching, and the story becomes marginally less interesting (at least to those not in this entirely for the Sunday matinee sermonizing). After locating the Sin Eater and being somewhat disappointed in the results, Cadi encounters a mysterious stranger (E.T.’s Henry Thomas of all people) who lugs around a Bible and preaches the word of God. As it turns out, only one man can absolve us of our sins. (This “original sin eater” isn’t actually mentioned by name, but it’s safe to assume it rhymes with “freeze us.”)
The film’s religious content is only mildly heavy-handed. Even so, it comes across as a bit superfluous. The film could have actually followed its storyline to the same conclusion without the intervention of Thomas’ Man of God character. Of course, that would have violated the whole “overt Christian content” thing.
Once the Bible-quoting is out of the way, Cadi continues on her quest, uncovering a string of ugly secrets about her community. In the end, it all comes out in the wash. Past sins are revealed (or “confessed” depending on how you want to look at it), Cadi fully confronts the dark tragedy in her past and everybody in the community cries ... and then gets baptized as born-again Christians.
Ultimately, I’m afraid, The Last Sin Eater isn’t going to be much of a “crossover” film. Audiences will be made up almost entirely of evangelical church groups that are required to sing its praises. That’s almost a shame. In some ways, The Last Sin Eater is a better secular film than it is a religious one. There are some interesting emotional and historical themes here, and they’re nicely handled. The born-again Christian elements, on the other hand, seem clunky and not so well integrated. If he’s gonna keep this kind of thing up, Our Lord and Savior might want to get himself a better Hollywood agent.