The Sin Eater

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This film has not faired very well in the States, and it only partially has itself to blame. Called THE ORDER in the U.S., it is more accurately titled THE SIN EATER everywhere else. Henceforth, I will refer to the film by the latter title, in partial deferment to our large fan base in the UK, and also because while the order is mentioned several times, this film is really about the Sin Eater.

20th Century Fox was having a hard time marketing this film, and to their credit, a supernatural horror film, with a strong emphasis on theological teachings and crises of faith is not an easy sell, even if it did work well for THE EXORCIST. Their solution was to make the trailer look like it was about something entirely different. The gist I got from the trailer was that the film detailed a priest recruited by the Vatican to investigate an occult-laden murder of a religious figure, only to become involved with a satanic order, and possibly the demons they've spawned. This is the marketing, and it is false.

Alex Bernier (Heath Ledger - A KNIGHT'S TALE, NED KELLY) is one of the last priests belonging to an order that has been all but disavowed by the Vatican - not because they are so liberal, but because they are so conservative. The Carolingians believe in the old demons of scripture and tradition, not as metaphor but as literal beings. Therefore, the Carolingians are prone to perform exorcisms without the blessing of the church and spend their daily lives in a battle against the forces of darkness.

One night changes Alex's life in two ways. First, a mysterious priest (Peter Weller - ROBOCOP, NAKED LUNCH, BUCKAROO BANZAI), informs him that his mentor Father Dominic has died under mysterious circumstances. Alex vows to head to Rome to find out what happened. Before he departs, he is reunited with Mara (the yummy Shannyn Sossamon - THE RULES OF ATTRACTION, 40 DAYS 40 NIGHTS), who has escaped from a mental institution because she believes Alex is in danger.

So, Alex and Mara head to Rome, where another Carolinian (Mark Addy - A KNIGHT'S TALE, THE FULL MONTY), meets them. He introduces himself to Mara off-screen and reuinites with his old friend, Alex. This is not the first, nor the last time that the film feels like the second installment in franchise. They learn that Dominic was part of a ceremony known as "sin eating," which has supposedly not been practiced for centuries. Through a mutual agreement, the Sin Eater arrives and performs a ceremony on dying people who have been condemned by the Catholic Church - suicides, excommunicates, etc. The ceremony allows the dying to pass the knowledge and burden of their sins onto the Sin Eater, thus allowing them to die in peace and enter Heaven purged of their transgressions. But is the Sin Eater a force of good or evil?

Alex finally comes face to face with the current Sin Eater, William Eden (Benno Fürmann - ANATOMIE, THE PRINCESS AND THE WARRIOR), a man who has carried the title alone (we assume) for the last five hundred years. But to Alex's surprise, he is unable to kill Eden right away, because he has doubts. He has doubts in his commitment to his faith and he has doubts in the motivations of the Sin Eater.

Like I said earlier, the film is really about the Sin Eater. It devotes a surprising amount of time to describing what he does and why he does it (For Mr. Eden, the term "it" just doesn't apply). The second the words "Sin Eater" are uttered, the film becomes about him and about how Alex reacts to every development involving the aged creature. Is he man or monster, devil or god? The film moves forward with those intriguing questions, unfortunately leaving others unanswered.

THE OR- er, excuse me... THE SIN EATER starts out by proving itself to be a top-notch supernatural horror film. The opening recalls some of the darker work of John Carpenter and the initial set-up in the States brings the old themes of a certain Freidkin classic to mind. But this film does more than channel previous classics, it goes off on it's own. It's the brainchild of the talented Brian Helgeland, who wrote, produced and directed this film.

Then comes the moment when Alex buries his slain mentor on the church grounds, against the strict orders of the Vatican. It's a touching scene of sadness and devotion that is interrupted when two demonic children send gusts of wind to torment Alex until he wards them off with his faith. Thomas arrives immediately afterward and they have a short conversation, which I'll paraphrase:

THOMAS: So, what was that?

ALEX: Oh, some demons trying to kill me.

THOMAS: Huh. What brought that on?

ALEX: Who knows?

THOMAS: Oh, well anyway?

Not the direct dialogue of the scene, but a pretty good summation. I remembered that the first time we're introduced to Thomas, he is chasing down a demon, who prophesies destruction for his church before disintegrating into a decayed cadaver. It is then I realized, there will be no closure to the demonic children, no closure to the demon Thomas chased down, and no mention of either of them ever again. This is unforgivably sloppy. What's more, we are reminded again that neither of our heroes is shocked when they see demons from the nether realms and that they may see them almost every day. Again, this is something we need further background on before being thrust headlong into it. To understand a lifestyle that extreme, we need some sort of orientation, otherwise it just feels less than real.

But the demonic subplots aren't the only things glossed over in this film. At THE SIN EATER's beginning, it feels like everything is falling into place, but it takes almost no time for the film to spread itself a bit too thin. It's as if the film aspires to be an epic, three hour plus, multigenerational supernatural horror film with strong theological ties. But in the end, it's a 102 minute film that never connects the lines it's started to draw, and we don't get the emotional oomph we need.

We never learn nearly enough about the relationship between Alex and Mara. We only hear passing references to Mara's possession or mental illness - whichever it is, we aren?t sure. Thomas is haunted by the memory of someone, we're never sure who, who makes a cameo for less than a minute. Once again, we're wondering what we're missing out on. Eden begins his tale of how he discovered the Sin Eater, but then never describes how he became one himself and what effect it had on him. He simply concludes his tale with a sloppy line like, "and so I learned how to be a Sin Eater." I'm reminded of Johnny Depp's line in PIRATES OF THE CARRIBEAN, "...and then they made me their chief!" a line apropos of nothing and quoted from THE FAST SHOW. Peter Weller, a welcome sight in the beginning, seems to have large chunks missing from his part. So, his presence goes from great to goofy in lightning speed. By the time he exits the film, we never truly believe anything he's said. This film is not telling a story, it's reading the footnotes.

Too bad, because the performances are amazingly impressive. Heath Ledger proved he was more than a Hollywood pretty-boy with a powerhouse supporting role in MONSTER'S BALL ("You hate me."). Here, he channels that further into the melancholy Alex Bernier, a character with tons of emotional turmoil under his stoic, soft-spoken demeanor. Shannyn Sossamon (MEOWRRR!) does amazing things with what she is offered in her part. But unfortunately, she is shuffled off to the sidelines too quickly. Mark Addy is great in his fun-loving manner and does more with the part than simple comic relief. Fürmann is great as William Eden, a man who offers Alex the world, much like Satan tempted Jesus in the wilderness. The main difference being Fürmann is very up-front with the price paid for a long and powerful life.

Helgeland's direction is often very assured, choosing to focus more on the tortured faces of his cast, illuminated by the light and simultaneously obscured by darkness - a theme the film carries well. Helgeland is a fantastic screenwriter. He wrote the script for the film that TITANIC robbed at the Oscars, L.A. CONFIDENTIAL. He penned CONSPIRACY THEORY, which I still say is Richard Donner's best film. Yes, I know I am going to Movie Critic Hell for that one. His directorial record has been spotty but intriguing. PAYBACK was a mostly fantastic remake of POINT BLANK, which had a few muddled spots (this may or may not be due to star interference). He followed that up with A KNIGHT'S TALE, which is gaining a strong cult following. I admit, I have not yet seen A KNIGHT'S TALE. I was watching through the first musical sequence and realized I just didn't get it. I would have to watch the film in a better frame of mind, a task I have yet to undertake. THE SIN EATER is his most understated film, filled with the mysteries of faith, with an emphasis on the mysteries.

Still, he may have wanted to consult more with his cinematographer, Nicola Pecorini (FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS, THE BROTHERS GRIMM). The interior scenes are all filmed with impeccable beauty. However, the exteriors look a bit muddy and worn. The film also chooses not to bother showing the beauty of Rome as well as any reproductions of Vatican City (The film has already been condemned by many Catholic organizations and thus would probably not be allowed to film within the holy city.). The exteriors look oddly confined and ugly, an aspiration for style that never pays off, much like another supernatural horror film, Janusz Kaminski's LOST SOULS.

The nature of the Sin Eater is intriguing if biased. The film exhalts the mysteries of the Catholic church, while simultaneously beating up on it and the film is ambiguous (on purpose?) over which side it's on.

THE SIN EATER is not completely horrible. I may even be able to recommend it, albeit with reservations. It wants to tell us things about the nature of faith and how the modern-day church is hard pressed to resolve itself with it's own mysticism. It wants to tell us this story by involving us in the characters and perhaps give us a few scares to boot. However, the film paints in such broad strokes that we can?t be expected to see the full picture in the time allotted. Is there a bigger story here? There sure is. Has it been written or filmed? I have no idea, but it certainly should have been.

THE SIN EATER serves up some delicious themes, but serves them in very small portions. By the time the check comes, we are moderately satisifed, but hungry for more.

Reviewed by Scott W. Davis