At a time when Christian filmmakers are eager to prove that they can make movies that are just as generic and formulaic as anything Hollywood puts out—Christian political thrillers, Christian serial-killer mysteries, Christian romantic comedies, and the like—there is something to be said for a movie like The Last Sin Eater, which doesn't even try to follow any secular trends. The FoxFaith film, which concerns an obscure quasi-religious ritual that was practiced by some Britons and emigrants from Britain as recently as the 19th century, also puts spiritual concerns front-and-center, instead of trying to smuggle them in through the back door.
So if the characters get a little preachy at times, as people in Christian movies are wont to do … well, at least it fits this story in a more organic sort of way.
The film takes place in the Appalachian mountains circa 1850, and the title refers to a custom that the characters have brought with them from their native Wales, in which a man—usually a beggar or some similar social outcast—takes the sins of the newly deceased upon himself in exchange for food and drink. Because sin eaters are thought to have the sins of many people weighing on their souls, they are shunned by their communities, except when someone dies and their services are required—and even then, to look a sin eater in the eye is to invite a curse.
Of course, if you tell someone not to do something, the odds are pretty good that he or she might do it—especially if that person is a child. And so it is that a young girl named Cadi Forbes (Liana Liberato) attends the funeral of her grandmother and looks a particular Sin Eater (Peter Wingfield) right in the eye, while all her friends and relatives are making a point of looking the other way or closing their eyes altogether.
Cadi becomes obsessed with the Sin Eater, and not simply because she is curious to know who he is, where he lives, how he got his peculiar job, or why that blonde woman down the road goes looking for him up the mountain every now and then. Cadi's younger sister died recently, and Cadi feels that the death is somehow her fault; what's more, she believes her mother (Elizabeth Lackey) would have preferred it if Cadi had been the one that died, instead. So, traumatized by the harm that she thinks she has caused, Cadi wants to ask the Sin Eater to take her sins away.
The very concept of "sin eating" is so unusual that the film cannot help but be at least a little interesting. However, the movie suffers from the same sense of inevitability that afflicts so many other Christian films; at times you suspect the filmmakers are not all that interested in the phenomenon of "sin eating" for its own sake, but regard it as just another set-up for an evangelistic punch line.
The film is based on a novel by Francine Rivers, and directed by Michael Landon Jr. from a script he wrote with Touched by an Angel producer Brian Bird. All of Landon's previous directorial efforts have been adaptations of Janette Oke novels (the Love Comes Softly series) or tributes to his father, the Little House on the Prairie star; and The Last Sin Eater would be quite at home sitting next to those stories on someone's DVD shelf.
The film suffers from pedestrian direction, but it benefits from decent performances, especially where its young star Liberato is concerned. As a window into an older culture, or an evening's entertainment with the family, you could certainly do worse. Just don't be surprised when the movie starts preaching to the converted—that is, to the fellow believers who will undoubtedly make up the bulk of its audience.
Complete review at CT Movies