Halfway through the 19th century, Cadi Forbes and her family live in a small Appalachian community of Welsh immigrants. The 10-year-old girl's beloved grandmother passes away and, as is their custom, the whole village gathers at the graveyard and waits, with backs turned, for the Sin Eater to arrive. The shrouded figure drifts in, eats bread and wine that has been set on the body and speaks of taking the woman's sins upon himself so that she may rest in peace.
The funeral has a stirring effect on Cadi and she becomes obsessed with seeking out this mysterious man in hopes that the guilt she feels over the death of her younger sister (Elen) can be taken away. Meanwhile, a stranger camping outside the community says he can help Cadi find God's truthful answer to the burden she is bearing. Truth, however, is one thing that some people in this cove would kill to keep hidden.
In a sweet scene, Cadi brings flowers to an elderly neighbor woman (Miz Elda) she thinks can lead her to the Sin Eater. After they talk, Elda asks, "Was the Sin Eater the only reason you came by today?" Cadi responds truthfully, "Yes ma'am." But then Cadi impulsively embraces her and declares, "But it won't be next time."
In spite of the dangers facing him, Cadi's friend, Fagan, puts his physical safety on the line to help her and others. In fact, at one point he tries to prevent his violent father from attacking the stranger and is badly beaten for his efforts. Cadi responds by tending to him and helping him get to safety and medical aid. Likewise, Cadi puts herself between a man with a gun and the Sin Eater to keep him from being killed. She also reaches out to the Sin Eater in a way no one else will. Her motives are at first self-serving, but she gradually comes to care about him and seems to resent the fact that he's been needlessly ostracized by her family and friends. He repays her kindnesses by trying to help her and Fagan in several significant ways. (As does another ostracized woman.)
[Spoiler Warning] Cadi and her mom, who have had a strained relationship ever since little Elen's death, reconcile and talk things out. Cadi blames herself for the tragedy. Her mother shoulders the blame, too. They're both finally able to let it go. Cadi's father, meanwhile, never fails to show his love and support for his daughter, and urges his wife to resist her ongoing temptation to emotionally shut the girl out.
Much of The Last Sin Eater revolves around Cadi's spiritual journey which culminates with her salvation. "Would I have to live to be Granny's age to be free of all the evil I had done?" she wonders in the early stages of her quest. And clearly, the film states, she does not. After she asks, "Who will take my sins away?" we're shown and told that only Jesus Christ, the Son of God and the "original Sin Eater" can do such a miraculous thing.
The villagers' phony savior, by way of contrast, can't do a thing for Cadi, even though he tries his best.
The Sin Eater is referred to by locals (who say they believe in "powerful dark spirits") as "a man who sold himself to the devil" and who "spends his whole life hopin' people will die so he can feast on their sins." But we learn fairly early that the Sin Eater is actually a normal man who, 20 years prior, had been chosen by a public lottery to serve the spiritual needs of the community. He earnestly believes that he has been chosen by God's hand and, even though it means that he can have no physical contact with the living (including the woman he loves) and he must sacrifice his soul for their sake, he performs his duty selflessly. "For thy earthly sins, dear woman, I pawn my own soul," he intones while attending to the dead form of Cadi's grandmother.
Later, when he discovers that it was all a lie he laments, "All of these years and it wasn't God's will." Elda explains why the old-world tradition of the Sin Eater was instated in their little town, with, "I suppose the fear of God comes upon all men. Even the cruelest."
The Sin Eater rituals are depicted onscreen, and they're a bit creepy seeing as how they involve a corpse. But none of the scenes cross over into horror-movie territory. And the music, lighting, editing, etc., don't dig for cheap thrills. Instead, even from early on—due in large part to heavy-handed foreshadowing—you know that what the villagers are doing is wrong, and that it's only a matter of time before they see the light.
That light is introduced to them by the stranger, a Man of God who follows the Lord's leading and puts feet to his prayers for Cadi's people. He meets stiff resistance—but not from Cadi. When she seeks him out to warn him that he's in danger, he speaks of Jesus' sacrifice and gently guides her to the Savior's forgiveness.
[Spoiler Warning] Ultimately he gives his life to spread God's Word (giving Cadi his Bible before he dies). And later, through Cadi's efforts, the horrid truth of the community's murderous past is revealed and the whole town comes to faith in God. The Sin Eater himself becomes their spiritual leader and baptizes them all.
As Cadi strives to find a way to rid herself of her soul-crushing guilt, she is befriended by a little girl—dressed all in white—she's never seen before. The girl (or, more likely, an angel) appears and disappears at will while guiding and encouraging Cadi in times of need. Then when Cadi has lost all hope and is on the edge of suicide, God sends the preacher to literally pull her back from the brink.
Addressing her despair, the preacher assures Cadi that "nothin' you could have done could make the Lord love you any more or any less." Similarly, confronting Cadi's habit of running away and hiding every time she's scared, the angel informs her, "God has not given you a heart of fear."
Brogan Kai, Fagan's father, literally rules the little mountainside community with an iron fist. We see him slap and choke Cadi (she passes out), and severely beat his son (leaving him bloodied, bruised and swollen-faced). Cadi throws a rock at Brogan to make him stop. Later we discover that his violent behavior was battered into him by his father who led men in the slaughter of a Native American village.
The evil leader shoots men point-blank, sends women and children plunging off a precipice to their death and forces his own son (Brogan as a boy) to set fire to teepees full of imprisoned families. One injured survivor crawls to a nearby cave and draws pictures of the events on the cave wall with his own blood (which we see streaming down his arm and onto his hand).
Cadi and her little sister fight over a rag doll. Cadi slaps Elen and then their mother slaps Cadi. [Spoiler Warning] When Cadi runs off, Elen follows to apologize and accidentally falls to her death in the same ravine where many of the Indians perished. An overpowering sense of guilt and grief drives Cadi to imagine herself plunging to her own death—and eventually causes her to really attempt it. Also of note, but still something of a plot spoiler is the unsettling fact that Fagan's pa beats the preacher to death in front of his son and Cadi. (The scene is difficult to watch, but isn't gory or even all that explicit since much of the "action" is seen from a distance and it's shot outside in the dark.)
Crude or Profane Language
Drug and Alcohol Content
Each time the Sin Eater performs his "duty," he drinks from a wineskin that has been placed on the chest of the deceased.
Other Negative Elements
Cadi steals a jar of preserves from home to place on her grandmother's grave to hopefully connect with the Sin Eater. Brogan not only uses his brawn to control the people around him, he also lies and cheats to get the things he wants—uncaring of the fact that his manipulations cause severe pain. Cadi and Fagan both tell family members (a mom, a sister and a dad) that they hate them.
Michael Landon Jr. is best (and most recently) known for directing a series of films based on Christian author Janette Oke's novels. (Love's Abiding Joy is his latest.) With The Last Sin Eater, he continues to borrow from his famous father's dramatic sensibilities as he brings another bestselling author, Francine Rivers (The Atonement Child and Redeeming Love) to the screen.
This time around, Landon trades in the open prairie for the coves and confines of Appalachia, and he adds a touch of eeriness by turning his attention to an old-world pagan tradition. He also turns the camera on a few violent (and fatal) confrontations, scenes of death rituals, and Cadi's suicidal thoughts and attempts.
Sin Eater has an occasional indie-film freshness about it—especially when it focuses on the excellent performance given by the talented and endearing Liana Liberato (who plays Cadi). Its comparatively involving story is made up of mild twists and turns that seem, at first, like rabbit trails, but ultimately all pull together. At the same time, however, many of Liberato's adult co-stars fail to live up to her potential. And chunks of the script feel as if the writer was working around commercial breaks, not directly addressing more savvy theatergoers whose expectations are rising right along with ticket prices.
One thing no one could ever fault this effort for, though, is going soft while telling a story about how Christ's redemptive work can set free even the most guilt-beset heart. The film begins with, "Secrets always reveal themselves in the light of truth." And it essentially ends with, "The truth will set you free." In between, it sheds a good deal of light on both facts.