The Last Sin Eater is a weak attempt at recharging the batteries of the drowsy, unsophisticated message machine of today's Christian evangelical set by augmenting it with a few misguided stabs at old-world Tolkien-style mysticism. Set back in olden-times, in the woodsy wilds of North America, the plot revolves around a clan of rough-and-tumble Welsh immigrants, although based on the accents in the film, I have to assume that a few Irish people (and modern-day Americans) climbed into the boat as it was shoving off from Cardiff. When a creepy, bug-eyed grandmother kicks the bucket in the first reel, her simple funeral prompts the arrival of a hooded figure whispered about as the 'sin eater.' This gentleman turns out to be something of an Edward Jesushands who is forced to live a shunned existence on a nearby mountain, but must also occasionally trek down the mountain to perform a ritual whereby he physically removes sins from a person's body. Intrigued by the stranger, young Cadi (Liana Liberato) determines to learn more about him.
The most interesting thing about Cadi is that she has a pre-teen angel for an everyday companion, which might be good grist for a film that was literate in Philip Pullman or other modern religio-fantasy writers who are trying to do the hard work of making dogma fresh and intriguing. The Last Sin Eater, however, is a film that's barely competent in things like camera set-ups, let alone interested in creating a project that's actually meant to be intellectually stimulating. The plot structure builds rapidly towards a Twilight Zone-style payoff, when we learn that this isolated clan of Zeta-Joneses are actually suffering by not knowing -- I guess this would actually occur to the film's target audience -- that this 'sin eater' must be a fraud. A bible-toting preacher arrives somewhere near the one-hour mark to let young Cadi and her clan know that the only real 'sin eater' is a man who ate sins two thousand years ago, and whose record-holding status as heavyweight sin-eating champ is uncontested.
A few of the film's diversionary herrings are of passing interest, including an abusive father who is perfectly willing to not only beat his own son to a bloody pulp, but also to point a gun at a little girl. His wavering accent and barely-controlled rage mix together to create a weirdly watchable character. There's also a momentarily-interesting backstory about why Cadi is so hot on the trail of the sin eater, instead of letting him do his routine sin-munching and then disappear back into his mountain abode. Her reasons for becoming determined to track him down have to do with what she perceives as a giant sin of her own. She wants to shove that sin right down the sin-eater's throat. Liberato plays the Cadi character adequately, although in some scenes it's perfectly clear that the 11-year old is repeating her lines from memory rather than processing them. The same is true for some of the of-age performers as well, including one elderly female actor who looks like Marlon Brando in a bonnet.
Fox Faith, a new self-explanatory off-shoot of 20th Century Fox, produced this film and it was directed by Michael Landon, Jr., a man with a toehold in both Hollywood and Christiandom, like Stephen Baldwin. The made-for-television aura that hangs over the project can either be laid at his doorstep, or at the doorstep of the film's screenwriter, whose prior credits include a stint on the television show Touched by an Angel. Actually, it's more likely that neither were given much room to work. Fox Faith cleary has a very restricted budget to churn out productions like this one, and quality is probably no more of a mandate than it is in the division that churns out straight-to-video sequels of the studio's popular films. There's a market out there that demands a certain kind of film with a certain kind of message, and Fox has determined to re-package that message for them over and over again, which, in all fairness, is exactly what they do for people who love romantic stories with happy endings.
There's a remarkable boldness to the film's third act, when the origin story of the 'sin eater' is laid bare, and we realize that the filmmakers are using Shirley Jackson's 'The Lottery' -- a cautionary tale against blind adherence to superstitious nonsense -- as a template to assert their own religious message. The collective sin of the townspeople -- frightened by the harsh environment of the new world, they held a makeshift lottery and chose one of their own people to become an outcast sin-eater, who would be forced to absorb all of their sins -- is washed away only when the 'truth' becomes known to them, which is that they are not really indebted to their bric-a-brac pagan customs from the old world, but to an omniscient soul-slaver called Jesus Christ. This film, an unintentionally transparent and sometimes hilarious portrait of diseased Americana, actually has a late scene in which the newly 'enlightened' townsfolk head down to the local river to submerge themselves in a Christian baptism ritual. Just one dunk, and all those superstitions are washed away!