'The Sinners' talks the talk but can't walk the walk of being another 'Riverdale' imitator with its own unique spin on small-town criminality.
- 🍭 Plays the religion card in an inspired way.
- 🍭 A young cast with promise.
- 🍭 The mystery isn't gripping.
- 🍭 The dread is rather dry.
- 🍭 Characters are chalk outlines.
- 🍭 Fits a mold but is empty inside.
Without Riverdale, would The Sinners exist? Imitation; the sincerest form of flattery. It's a proven tactic throughout Hollywood because what producer would complain about monetarily capitalizing off another project's proven demand? Writer and director Courtney Paige translates Chilling Adventures Of Sabrina or Riverdale binges into pop-music soundtrack exhaustion, misrepresented promotion about cults, and worst of all, a revision that's only halfway able to channel its closest cinematic relatives. It's like The Craft without supernatural intrigue or Charmed sans satanic actualities—but hey, at least characters all sport matching Catholic schoolgirl outfits and strut down hallways in smolder-step synchrony.
Aubrey Miller (Brenna Llewellyn) lives in an indelibly religious community where everyone knows your name and transgressions. She's part of a cool-girl clique that becomes known as a representation of the seven deadly sins, with Aubrey assuming "Pride." When the film opens, Aubrey introduces us to her girl-gang, the uptight virtuosity of teachers and parents alike, then informs those listening that The Sinners concludes with her body submerged under serene lake waters. According to Audrey, "The Sins" are nicknamed accordingly. Whether or not justice strikes the fear of God into guilty parties is the tale that unfolds.
As Stirling Bancroft's cinematography glides over postcard-worthy mountain ranges, Aubrey's monologues invoke bible verses and speak of betrayals that are never outright suspenseful. By working backward, it's almost as if Paige, alongside co-writers Erin Hazlehurst and Madison Smith, employs this reverse narrative tactic to generate intrigue that's non-existent within character or plot development. "Don't worry, Aubrey will die," is the promise to audiences. This nagging reminder taps the backs of our skulls as The Sinners drifts around vapid teenagers defined by their "Gluttony" or "Greed" monikers bestowed upon introductions. Marketing materials would have you believe details get cultish and unruly, but that's never an achievement. Unfortunate, because the entire dour-and-drab experience is crying for something like a hellfire distraction from dominating shallowness.
Time after time, The Sinners renders itself substantially incapable of stoking tension or asserting emotional stakes without hammering on the proverbial nose. The Sin Girls (including Keilani Elizabeth Rose, Brenna Coates, and more) are barely defined beyond their Academy of Unseen Arts uniform knockoffs. They exist as sassy rebels against immediate churchgoing strictness in the most familiar forms. Only Grace (Kaitlyn Bernard) becomes a more in-the-flesh representation of corrupted youth, and even at that, her bickering with righteous pastor papa Dean (Tahmoh Penikett) or a narc brother is worth dinner destroying talkbacks.
Supporting characters fare far worse, point-and-case Sheriff Fred Middleton (Aleks Paunovic). Dialogue overzealously emphasizes Fred's morally upstanding nature and his giddy, gentle-giant excitement about becoming a father because what's danger without the threat of killing the sole redeemable nice-guy? Or worse, you could be the leather-bad detectives (Lochlyn Munro and Michael Eklund), whose defining characteristics are "licks lollipops; cafeteria bullying focused on Fred" for two out-of-place scenes before exiting without necessitation. Frankly, a cast of leftovers cut from more enriched, thoughtful screenplays.
The hunter-thriller throughlines that thrust The Sinners forward would be envious of even the least-watched CW shows canceled after a single season. Audrey commits an injustice against her besties and is kidnapped in a hilariously bumbled event where she's transported to the woods then lost in sunshiny daylight, which these masked wannabe Tragedy Girls shrug into oblivion. Then the real fun begins, and by fun, I mean repetitive segments where each "Sin" vanishes one-by-one under Fred's watchful but hapless oversight. Innocent florists who sell out of their Volkswagen vans are detained incorrectly, funeral sequences are exhaustively drawn into a neverending harmony of forced sobs, and blasphemous drama ensues as the town's pastor suggests the police practice more prayer to find their town's villain. Red herrings are as slippery as sandpaper, but what's worse is Paige's persistent inability to stir more than a few ripples in this barely-simmering gothic(ish) stew. The inconsequence of it all is a punishment.
The Sinners wastes all its engagement on a two-sentence synopsis that teases cults and deadly-sin mimicry. None of that ghastly illicitness sneaks into an otherwise lackluster premise of teenagers murdered within God-fearing borders, even with Brenna Llewellyn narrating from the grave. Double toil, no trouble. The building blocks are sturdy, down to colored roses in the mouth of each victim, but most are swiped from similarly ambitious frameworks with far more emphatic executions. A film that plays like floating ideas that need to be corralled and nurtured beyond immature stages. Courtney Paige starts in the right place, but all the indie acoustic needle drops and Riverdale stylistic aping aren't enough to excuse the fundamental basicness of this one-trick, one-tone pony.
The Sinners will be available to rent February 19th, 2021.
Matt Donato is a Rotten Tomatoes approved film critic who stays up too late typing words for such outlets as What To Watch, Bloody Disgusting, Fangoria, Shudder, Ebert Voices, and countless other publications. He is a member of the Hollywood Critics Association and co-hosts a weekly livestream with Perri Nemiroff called the Merri Hour. You probably shouldn't feed him after midnight, just to be safe.
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