Heath Ledger plays a priest investigating the unexplained death of a colleague in The Sin Eater, a new horror film from the director of A Knight’s Tale. Reviewed by Kevin O’Reilly.
The Sin Eater, released as The Order in the US, is the latest entry in the ever-popular religious horror genre, which has produced The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, The Omen and countless lesser films. You’ll notice the religion in question is usually Catholicism. I was brought up Catholic and my memories are of sitting on a cold pew, bored out of my wits, surrounded by old women singing hymns off-key. In the movies however, it’s an exotic and mysterious cult whose churches, costumes and rituals provide a perfect dramatic backdrop for horror stories. There have been so many films like this now that they’ve developed their own cliches. You can always count on some or all of the following ingredients: (1) a handsome, tortured priest as the hero, (2) a sexy young woman who makes the handsome priest question his vow of chastity, (3) a conspiracy high up in the Vatican and (4) ludicrous supernatural mumbo jumbo passed off as theology.
You’ll find all these elements in The Sin Eater. The handsome, tortured priest is Father Alex, playes by fresh-faced Aussie Heath Ledger, who looks less like a priest than any actor in film history and that includes Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr in The Cannonball Run. Father Alex is a member of the Carolingian order, which means that, besides saying mass and hearing confessions, he fights “ghosts, demons and the other undead”. As the story opens, Alex learns from chain-smoking Cardinal Driscoll (Peter Weller) that Father Dominic, the head of the order and Alex’s mentor, has died mysteriously in Rome. His death has been officially recorded as a suicide but Alex refuses to believe it and travels there with two faithful companions. One is the beautiful Mara (Shannyn Sossamon), an escaped mental patient who Alex once exorcised and is now in love with him. The other is his best friend and fellow Carolingian Father Thomas (Mark Addy), a cynical Brit who swears like a sailor and encourages Alex to have sex with Mara. His sermons must raise a few eyebrows.
Arriving in Rome, the trio investigate Father Dominic’s death and become embroiled in a dark plot involving the Church, a bizarre Satanic cult and a mythical figure known as a sin eater, a man who has the ability to absolve people from any punishment for their sins. The truth, once revealed, is fairly simple – this is just a vampire movie in different vestments – but, to throw us off the scent, there are all sorts of weird and unexplained dead ends and red herrings. There are the demons for example, which keep popping up and trying to kill Alex and his friends. Then there’s the Satanic cult, which seems to have nothing to do with anything else until a late twist that raises more questions than it answers. This is quite a cult. Alex and Thomas approach the hooded leader for information and he tells them they must “ask the dying”, as apparently dying people are privy to all of life’s secrets. Then he helpfully provides one by hanging someone in front of the priests… who, after their initial shock, just go right ahead and question the hapless man.
Of course this is complete trash but it could still have be fun if it was as fast moving and over-the-top as Stigmata or Bless The Child, both of which have places of honour on my guilty pleasure list. Unfortunately this is trash taken seriously. Like the equally awful Lost Souls and Revelation, it moves at a leaden pace and has a tone as solemn as a funeral. Amazingly, it’s the work of Brian Helgeland, the gifted writer of LA Confidential and director of A Knight’s Tale, whose cast he’s unwisely re-assembled. I like Heath Ledger – he was terrific in A Knight’s Tale and 10 Things I Hate About You, which both made good use of his boyish charm. However, he doesn’t have the weight to play the serious roles he’s been taking lately. He was badly miscast in The Four Feathers and he’s just ridiculous here in a part that needs an actor who can smoulder convincingly like Gabriel Byrne or Denzel Washington. Ledger just looks like he’s modelling for a priest’s fashion magazine. Mark Addy is supposed to contribute some comic relief but his jokes are so bad and so inappropriate to the material that the impression is of a loutish audience member who’s somehow climbed into the screen and started taking the piss. Between them, Ledger and Addy sabotage any chance Helgeland ever had of building the dark, moody atmosphere he’s aiming for. Shannyn Sossamon is about the only actor in the cast who escapes with her dignity. Aside from some impressive sets and decent location shooting in Rome, that’s about the only good thing you can say about The Sin Eater. This really is a terrible film.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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