The Sin Eater


Released in 2003, certified UK-15. Reviewed on 15 Sep 2003 by Scott Morris
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This has been renamed The Order for it's American release, which sounds significantly less daft than it's original Sin Eater moniker the U.K. receives. More sensible but far less appropriate, as it happens. I'm sad to report that talking about the title of the film is far more interesting than talking about the film itself.

Alex Bernier (Heath Ledger) is a tough talking, shoot from the hip priest that takes no crap from those pen pushers at City Hall. A priest on the edge, a loose ecclesiastical cannon, Dirty Harry in a dog collar. Well, not quite, but from his general sullen nature and status as one of the few priests of a dying order, the Carolingians puts him to the fringes of the Catholic Church. His life as a common or garden preacher is contrary to his orders' training in dispelling demons, banishing hell spawn, exorcising ghosts and many other devil-busting techniques that are frowned on in this more enlightened age of lasers and particle accelerators.

This boring little life is diverted to a potentially more interesting and windswept course when high ranking cleric Driscoll (Peter Weller), tipped to be the next Pope brings Alex some disturbing news. His mentor, friend, head of his order and father figure Father Dominic (Francesco Carnelutti) has been found dead in his apartment in questionable circumstances. Dominic had been excommunicated from the church for his continued search for knowledge of ancient rites that the shiny happy modern Church had decreed heretical and irrelevant. Driscoll decides to send Alex to Rome to investigate.

Alex calls on his friend and only remaining member of his order Father Thomas Garrett (Mark Addy) to join him. Garrett's introduction dispels an lingering doubt as to how real this talk of demons and whatnot is, as he drives someone who would appear to be a normal burglar out of his house by brandishing a crucifix in his general direction, where upon the would-be thieving demon is the victim of an unplanned van / flesh interface. He manages to call Garrett a few names before he dies and dissolves, for some reason.

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'For some reason' is a phrase that you may find tiring to read for the remainder of this review, as there's really very little explanation of what's going on in the film. Perhaps we're expected to have taken an open university course in General Occult Practices, and understand why some of the later oddities just happen with little or no obvious reasoning behind it. I suppose that the devil must work in as mysterious ways as God does, but there's a fair few utterly inexplicable moments in this film that are perhaps meant to add to an air of intrigue and mystery that never manages to establish itself in the first place.

Alex is joined by a charming young filly fresh from an escape at a mental asylum, Mara (Shannyn Sossamon). It transpires that Alex performed an exorcism on her at some past juncture and she tried to kill him for some reason. Time is a great healer, and she's accepted with open arms. She has some vague feelings of foreboding and decides to accompany Alex to Rome for some reason.

The duo don't wait for Garrett to show up and crack straight on with investigating Dominic's house. They ignore the stares of the two suspicious children hanging about by the door that are soon revealed to be demons summoned by Dominic for some reason, never explained or even alluded to again for the remainder of the film. These images are supposed to be shocking, but the only shock comes at how poor Brian Helgeland's script really is. Little or no convincing reason is given for these juvenile hell spawn's presence in the film, and this is something that will haunt the film time and time again.

It transpires that Dominic has been offed in a ritual half described by an age-old scrap written in Aramaic, the lazy scriptwriters way of increasing the perceived importance of anything. It refers to an entity that the Carolingians thought had been banished long ago, the titular Sin Eater. In essence, these chaps do exactly as their job description says, removing the sins of the Sin Eatee by a conceptually ridiculous method of popping some bread and salt on their chest, spouting some Aramaic gibberish and chowing down on the resultantly released sins. If you've ever wondered what your sins look like this film answers your question; they look rather like jellyfish, for some reason.

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This is an embarrassment to the Church as it allows someone to enter the very gates of Heaven sin-free without confessing at church and receiving absolution. Not wanting their salvation monopoly broken Driscoll gives a veiled permission for the trio to seek and destroy the Sin Eater by means of a knife of Holy Vengeance, or something of that ilk. Things take a more intriguing turn after a daft interlude with a bunch of hooded Satanists when the Sin Eater, or William Eden (Benno F?rmann) as he's more commonly known finds him. He's been chomping sins like some crazy Pac-Man for 500 years and wants out. He thinks he's found a replacement in Alex, and tries to convince him to renounce his shaky faith in the Church and live a happier, less celibate life with Mara and the riches to be had from a change of career. Will Alex choose this path or be forced down it? More importantly, will you care?

I certainly didn't. Given the subject matter I wasn't expecting a well thought out story but even so this script beggars belief. Effect happens with scant regard to cause, and there's an unmistakable air of scenes being thrown in because they might look good rather than particularly further the plot in any real way. Unfortunately they don't look too good, an overwhelming stench of ineptitude ruining the palette. Scenes that out to be laden with foreboding are undermined with oddities that ruin the effect. Witness aforementioned Satanic cult, happily hanging black masked victims after dropping them off a cross is some odd mystic ritual. The effect is spoiled a little by an insistence in speaking in Latin and their bizarre hoods which not only make them look decidedly dorky but also seem more likely to render them blind as it conceals their identity.

The acting is uniformly uninspired throughout. Ledger plays Alex with a world-weary look beyond his characters years, which is mildly effective but only as a sedative. The only time he's called on to act rather than monotonically read his lines he fails utterly, causing what ought to be a heart wrenching scene of his grief and shock to be a laughable pantomime. I'll hold my judgment on him until the impending Ned Kelly, because I kind of liked his performance in The Four Feathers and I wouldn't want to dismiss him too quickly. Everyone else acts in a similarly laconic fashion, the interplay between Alex and Garrett falling particularly flat. Garrett's playful naming of Alex as 'Spaghetti-O' is similarly as inexplicable as the rest of the film, and implies a dept of character that Alex never seems to have.

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Like the rash of Religious horror-mysteries the afflicted us in 1999 such as Stigmata this film seems to have only one aim - a very thinly veiled bashing of the Catholic Church. In it's long history there is indeed a vast swath of legitimate criticism that could be leveled at it (see The Magdalene Sisters), which is why it's frankly insulting to have this utter hogwash be used as a device to point out inconsistencies and hypocrisy in the ecclesiastical orders. This film seems to have little clear idea what it wants to achieve, as though it's being improvised on the day of shooting rather than scripted. Starting as a bad murder mystery, moving into a bad conspiracy thriller, taking a brief side trip into a bad horror movie before ending up a bad character study of a Sin Eater and someone he sees as a kindred spirit, the only consistent thing about this film is that it's bad.

As a critique of the Church it's a failure. As a horror movie it's a failure. As a mystery movie it's a failure. As a special effects laden shock fest it's a failure. As a movie in general it's a failure. Once again I'm left with nothing positive to say about a film. Given that religion is full of demons, lakes of fire and eternal damnation and so forth it's baffling to me that the few semi-horror films based on it have turned out so dull, and The Sin Eater is no exception.

Were I in the business of passing quantifiable judgements, I'd award this 1/5 TippyMarks.

Brian Helgeland
Cast list:
Heath Ledger (Alex Bernier)
Shannyn Sossamon (Mara Sinclair)
Benno F?rmann (William Eden)
Mark Addy (Thomas Garrett)
Peter Weller (Driscoll)
Francesco Carnelutti (Dominic)
Mattia Sbragia (Apathetic Bishop)