This 2007 film caught me by surprise, perhaps because of the way it was generally critiqued as a lightweight Christian film when it first came out. But this faithful adaptation of Francine Rivers’ book doesn’t try to hit you over the head with cinematic dogma. Instead, the film explores its characters while unfolding the story of a headstrong, yet troubled young girl living in a hardscrabble, Welsh immigrant mountain community in mid-19th century America. The movie opens with a death in 10-year-old Cadi Forbes’ family, and it’s in the ensuing burial ritual that she first encounters the dark, mysterious figure whom Cadi decides is the key to her own redemption from sin and guilt, the Sin Eater. As people gathered in the graveyard avert their eyes, the hooded Sin Eater comes, eats the bit of bread and drinks the wine placed on the deceased’s body, and pronounces that she has been freed from her sins through this ritual, which he declares is the pawning of his own soul so that the dead woman can enter the afterlife.
The history of sin eaters is mostly colloquial and drawn from folk history. Their roots are primarily found in the ancient Celtic pagan cultures of the British Isles, though there is some evidence to suggest variations on the notion of sin-eating existed in other cultures as well.
The sin eater was both a valued member of a community and also its most excluded and feared member. History suggests that some people were deceived into becoming sin eaters by people who would invite them to dinner and then announce that a dead relative was lying in the next room and that the person had just eaten their sins. Sin eaters received honorariums of sorts for their efforts, though they paid a much steeper price in their leper-like status as people to be shunned and feared, since they seemingly consumed all the darkness of people’s sins into their own souls.
Young Cadi Forbes becomes convinced that her community’s Sin Eater is the only one who can release her from her inner pain, and so she is resolved to move beyond her fear to seek out this darkly-veiled, reclusive hermit. Along the journey there are glimpses and hints of a larger sin lodged in the collective memory of the mountain community, a sin that has swallowed and kept people in the dark cave of repressed memory.
In the midst of these things, an American frontier version of John the Baptist arrives on the scene, a backwoods preacher convinced that there is evil in these mountains that must be rooted out and banished. This character, played by Henry Thomas (Elliot in E.T., Lacey Rawlins in All the Pretty Horses) is a refreshing change from the usual depiction of backwoods preacher-types, which almost always veer into Flannery O’Connor-esque caricatures without respecting Flannery’s subtle, ironic and heroic touches she applied to her characters. Thomas’ Preacher is as mysterious as the Sin Eater to Cadi and the other mountain folk, and his presence stirs up their collective anxiety. Louise Fletcher’s Miz Elda is the mountain community’s Wise Elder; while the angry, controlling Laochailand Kai, portrayed by Michael Flynn, rules the community through despotic intimidation, fear and violence. He also embodies the community’s collective dark past, though his fierce intention is that it remain hidden under lock and key.
The plot of The Last Sin Eater hinges upon the classic Christian themes of repentance and forgiveness, and the life-giving power of the spoken Truth to overcome the fatal power of the Lie and its henchmen: guilt, denial, despair, repression, oppression, and violence. The plot summary can be directly lifted from the words of Christ as recorded in John’s gospel: “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.” There is surprising freedom found by the people populating this film’s landscape, and their liberation leads directly to the restoration of good and healthy relationships among them.
The Last Sin Eater makes a good case for the life-giving value of the gospel, while subtly affirming the significance of key historical events in the spread of Christianity, such as the one involving the escaped slave, Patrick of Ireland. Patrick returned to live among his former slave-masters on the Emerald Isle, bringing them the same liberating gospel that had once led him to freedom from his enslavement in this pagan, Celtic culture. Patrick won converts without the force of arms and without any sort of army backing him up. Like the Backwoods Preacher, he was armed with only the Word and with the powerful faith this Word gave him. We don’t know if he put any sin-eaters out of business, but we can be sure that he let people know about the one who swallowed up sin by pawning himself to the power of sin. And the rest, as they say, is history.
The Last Sin Eater gets four tumbleweeds out of a possible five and is well worth adding to the queue.