Monday 22 February 2021

The Sinners (Canada 2020: Dir Courtney Paige)

"My name is Aubrey Miller and this is how my body ended up at the bottom of a lake." So opens Paige's feature debut, a movie chock full of unreliable narrators and religious oppression.

Miller (Brenna Llewellyn) is a somewhat reluctant member of 'The Sins', a group of schoolgirls surviving under the yoke of stern religious tutelage who have decided to quietly rebel against the Christian teachings both scholastically and at home ("there is no church vs state because church already won," comments Miller of the town). Ostensibly led by Grace Carver (Kaitlyn Bernard), whose father is the town pastor, each of the members of 'The Sins' has taken on, as the title suggests, one of the seven deadly sins as their gang name: Miller is 'pride' (she is the most devout of the group, and owns two bibles, one for home and one for school) and Grace is 'lust,' a complex appelation as she is a virgin. 

The other members of the 'The Sins' are Grace's best frend Tori (Brenna Coates), with whom Grace started the gang, and whose anger management issues dub her 'wrath', Katie (Keilani Elizabeth Rose) as 'greed', Stacey (Jasmine Randhawa) as 'envy', Robyn (Natalie Malaika) as 'sloth' and Molly (Carly Fawcett) as 'gluttony.' 

The gang are rumbled when Miller confesses their existence to Grace's dad, Pastor Dean (Tahmoh Penikett). The Pastor is already deeply suspicious of Grace's behaviour, not least that she's been hanging round with slacker loser Kit (Dylan Playfair). 'The Sins' steal Grace's journal and read her disclosure about the confession; deciding to teach her a lesson the group kidnap Aubrey with a view to scaring her into keeping her mouth shut, but she manages to escape after being taken to the woods. Now missing, the town focuses on the search for Miller, but it's not long before members of 'the Sins' start turning up dead, one deadly sin after the other.

The Sinners is almost two separate films; the first half is a very David Lynchian assessment of small town life, full of quirky characters like the guy who runs a craft shop from his Airstream, and the town sherriff, Fred Middleton (Aleks Paunovic) whose seemingly oversexed wife is merely trying to get pregnant. These roles are no more more vital to the story than a requirement to provide 'local colour.' Paige soundtracks her film with breathy singer/songwriters and while 'The Sins' subtext may suggest something more devilish, the mood of the film for the most part avoids a dark path. 

It's only in the second part of the movie, where the murders commence, that it starts to feel a little shaky. Someone has etched the seven deadly sins on a desk at school and is mysteriously crossing them out after each corresponding death; it's a pretty clumsy idea, which has you questioning the logistics of being able to get away with doing it, rather than it suggesting anything more mysterious. There's the usual red herring suspects, and two of Middleton's past colleagues turn up and start ragging on him for no particular reason. 

The omnipresent voice of Aubrey Miller, hovering over the proceedings and commenting on the action, is a nice idea (if not particularly original) but is later found to be a faulty narrative device, and it's this muddled thought and lack of character clarity which ultimately brings the film down. The Sinners looks good but its uneven tone and lack of cohesion count against it. Shame.

Signature Entertainment releases What Lies Below on Digital Platforms from 22 February.

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