The Sinners is a messy blend of gothic teen-thriller and slasher horror that bites off more than it can chew with a convoluted plot and a cringe-worthy narrator.
Directed by Courtney Paige (of the award-winning short film Butterscotch) and co-written by Paige, Erin Hazlehurst and Madison Smith, The Sinners is the story of a group of popular teenage girls in a small, bible-thumping town. The girls are rumoured by their peers to be in a cult, because they each seem to embody one of the seven deadly sins, but their lives fall apart when someone begins murdering them one-by-one.
Tonally, The Sinners can’t seem to make up its mind what it wants to be. There are shades of 90s cult classics like The Craft, to be sure, but the supernatural elements are so downplayed and tangential that they don’t have any clear impact on the plot. Similarly, the film also misses the mark as a slasher flick, opting to omit the cat-and-mouse pursuit scenes that are essential to the way that the genre traditionally builds tension and fear. Instead, we have brief torture scenes and dead bodies – but little or no build up to each killing.
One of the film’s biggest mistakes is the voiceover narration that interjects far too frequently throughout the first half. The narrator, Aubrey (Brenna Llewellyn), embodies the sin of pride. From the opening seconds of The Sinners, I found her totally insufferable. Not only does she recite bible verses ad nauseum, but she isn’t over-the-top enough to be fun or entertaining while she does it. I wish filmmakers would remember that even if characters aren’t likable, they do have to be engaging for the viewer. While the voiceover may have worked if used sparingly, it is clearly used here as a narrative crutch. Rather than show us who these girls are and why we should care about them, the film tells us through the conduit of Aubrey. Not everyone will react to this narrator as strongly as I did – but if I hadn’t been assigned to review this film, Aubrey’s narration would have been enough to make me turn off The Sinners by the eight-minute mark.
Visually, there are points when the film seems to flirt with a highly stylized gothic-esque aesthetic reminiscent of the first season of The CW’s Riverdale. However, The Sinners never allows itself to indulge in self-consciousness, or camp. I kept waiting for this film to be funny, everything from the ridiculous premise to the teen-goth aesthetic suggested that humour was on the horizon, but sadly this is not a comedy. The Sinners takes itself seriously, to its own detriment.
As for the cast, despite the thin effort that the script puts into developing her character, Kaitlyn Bernard’s performance makes Grace a likable and sympathetic heroine. Bernard is a lot of fun to watch, even if she doesn’t get much to work with in this role. Brenna Coates also deserves praise as Grace’s girlfriend, Tori. Though I wasn’t sure how to feel about her character in the first act (mostly due to the interjections of the voiceover mentioned above), by the third she had solidified herself as my favorite character. She felt believable and grounded in a way that none of the other girls, including Grace, did. During one scene in the buildup to the film’s climax Tori screams “F*CK” while alone in her car, and I felt her fear and rage like a punch to my gut. It is impressive when an actor can make you feel something in the midst of a film that you otherwise care nothing for.
This is Courtney Paige’s first feature-length film. While I can’t say that I enjoyed The Sinners, I would be curious to see what she does in the future. There seemed to be a strong effort here to make a genre film that avoided the male gaze. Though I don’t think Paige was entirely successful, it is possible that The Sinners is the sort of movie that will be appreciated by younger viewers who have different expectations of what a successful teen slasher should be.
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