Courtney Paige’s The Sinners opens on a view of a tranquil lake. The camera drifts through the scene as the voice of Aubrey Miller (Brenna Llewellyn) tells us that her body was found at the bottom of this very lake. It then flashes back to when Aubrey was still alive and introduces us to her town and the group of so-called friends that caused her to end up in that lake.
The Sinners is set in a small, intensely religious town and follows a group of girls at the local Catholic high school. Although Aubrey narrates the film, the protagonist is Grace (Kaitlyn Bernard), the local pastor’s daughter and the leader of the clique of popular girls, each of whom represents one of the seven deadly sins.
Taking a concept as well travelled as the seven deadly sins and telling a unique story about characters who embody each one is no easy task. The Sinners attempts to do this by having their peers assign them their sins. Aubrey explains that some of the sins are less applicable than others, which allows the girls to adopt one each without restricting them to roles that could become two-dimensional.
The idea certainly offers a bit more freedom than direct embodiment often does. However, trying to fully explore seven characters and a convoluted murder plot in the space of one movie leaves them all spread fairly thin. It doesn’t help that we don’t see the girls living up to their reputations very much. If there were more signifiers of their personalities, even just subtle ones, the girls would stand out more as individuals. Aubrey the narrator, Grace the ringleader, and Tori (Brenna Coates), who embodies wrath, are the most distinct, but otherwise the rest of group blurs together.
The conflict of the film begins when Grace steals Aubrey’s journal and reads the judgemental things she has written about the rest of the group. They decide to get their revenge by scaring the pridefully pious Aubrey with exaggerated depictions of their own sin. This quickly escalates to a staged kidnapping. When the girls argue over how far they’re prepared to take the scare, Aubrey escapes and goes missing. As the town panics, someone starts coming after the rest of the girls, and their bodies turn up one by one.
The film follows Grace as she tries to figure out where Aubrey has gone and who is behind the murders, while trying to deal with the guilt of knowing that her prank instigated it all. She stresses about her role as the pastor’s daughter and her confusing sexuality, arguing with her religious family as she grows up. We also delve into the story of Sheriff Fred Middleton (Aleks Paunovic) and his investigation into the missing girls. Some investigators from out of town briefly come into the picture to derail his work and bust his chops.
This is a lot to pack into ninety minutes and leaves some aspects of the film feeling underdeveloped. The subplot with the outside detectives takes up space but doesn’t contribute much. An attempt is made to establish some additional drama in the Sheriff’s personal life and relationship with his wife, but this is referenced so briefly that it loses a lot of the emotion that could have given it real weight. This is all on top of how quickly each murdered girl is skimmed past, both in their introduction and their death.
All the components for an interesting ongoing murder tale are here. The small religious community is very well established, even in just the early few scenes. You get a very clear sense from the start that this is the kind of place where everybody knows everybody and that some secrets simply cannot stay hidden. The way Grace’s father pressures her to be perfect and godly in every way and rests his reputation on her behaviour makes for some wonderfully intense scenes within their family. The hypocrisy of people so profoundly and proudly righteous could have been the perfect foundation for an exploration of humanity, religion and the very concept of sin.
However, The Sinners just doesn’t have enough time to examine all the ideas it introduces. A lot of the threads it lays out so neatly at the beginning are mixed up or lost entirely by the end of the film. For all the information about the intertwining relationships in the town, the big reveal at the climax seems to come out of nowhere. You have to be spoon-fed the context and, even then, you are left with questions.
Despite its issues, The Sinners is a very well produced film. It has a great soundtrack that, combined with the early scenes in particular, create a brilliant sense of tension through scenes of ordinary small-town life. Overall, however, it feels like it only scratches the surface of the story it wants a tell, in a way that leaves you feeling confused rather than hungry for more.