Multitudes of readers have embraced “The Last Sin Eater,” Christian novelist Francine Rivers’ allegorical tale of forgiveness and redemption in 1850s Appalachia. Still, the question remains: Will they gather at the megaplexes for Michael Landon Jr.’s respectfully sincere but only fitfully involving filmization? Despite the usual grassroots campaigning customarily used to launch such faith-based product, it’s more likely that most members of the target aud will wait for the sweet by-and-by — and catch the pic on homevid.
Set in a small 19th-century Appalachian community founded by Welsh immigrants, pic pivots on the extraordinary efforts by 10-year-old Cadi Forbes (Liana Liberato) to absolve the guilt she feels for indirectly — and altogether accidentally — causing the death of her younger sister.
Years earlier, the local elders re-established an ancient Celtic ritual by designating one of their group as a Sin Eater — a sort of sanctifying scapegoat who eats and drinks at the graveside of the newly deceased, thereby cleansing each dead person’s soul by assuming blame for his or her worldly transgressions. When he’s not munching on misdeeds, the Sin Eater (Peter Wingfield) remains a solitary recluse, forced to live apart from the community that shuns him (except, of course, on those occasions when his services are required).
Cadi get the bright idea that maybe, just maybe, she can track down the Sin Eater and have herself cleansed while she’s still alive. But the youngster can’t get a real shot at redemption without the intercession of a sprightly stranger (Thea Rose) who may or not be an angel, and the inspiration of an itinerant preacher (Henry Thomas) who suffers dearly for his faith.
Ultimately, Cadi discovers that there is only one true Sin Eater (i.e., Jesus Christ) just in time to encourage elderly Miz Elda (Louise Fletcher) to reveal a dark secret about truly sinful actions by the community’s founders.
Never afraid to overstate the obvious, helmer and co-scripter Landon establishes, underscores and italicizes each plot point with the well-intentioned didacticism of a Sunday School teacher. (Even so, a couple of violent scenes may make the pic unsuitable for very small children.) As secular drama, however, “The Last Sin Eater” is too leisurely paced to be anything more than a modestly diverting time-killer. It doesn’t help that a subplot involving Native Americans is introduced far too late in the story, without any foreshadowing whatsoever, to have the impact Landon clearly intends.
The actors and their accents are inconsistent, but never so off-target as to be genuinely annoying. Fletcher brings effective gravitas to her relatively small part, while newcomer Liberato capably handles the many demands of her lead role.
Pic was attractively lensed by Robert Seaman in Utah locales that adequately double for Appalachian mountain country.