Formerly titled The Color Rose, The Sinners wears its cinematic influences on its sleeves. Drawing heavily from teen girl movies like The Craft and Cruel Intentions while emulating Twin Peaks’ peculiar small-town vibe, Courtney Paige’s directorial feature debut attempts to blend a teen slasher with a crime thriller. Despite a solid concept, the result is a stylish yet disjointed film full of dangling and underdeveloped plot threads.
In a nondescript but devout Christian town, a high school clique known as the Sins draw negative attention for how they embody the seven deadly sins. Local preacher’s daughter Grace (Kaitlyn Bernard) embraces her reputation as Lust, earned for her penchant for short skirts and flirtatious personality, despite her virginal status. At the other end of the group is Aubrey (Brenna Llewellyn), our narrator, who’s barely tolerated by the fellow six solely because she embodies Pride so fully. When Aubrey is perceived to commit an egregious slight against the Sins, Grace leads the charge in a ruthless bullying campaign that ends with Aubrey’s sudden disappearance in the woods. As the Sins start getting picked off one by one, Grace scrambles to cover up any involvement as the bumbling town authorities struggle to piece anything together.
Straightaway, Aubrey’s voiceover sets up the mystery of her death as the film rewinds to introduce the Sins and the events that led up to her fateful disappearance in the woods. Yet, Paige, who co-wrote the script with Madison Smith and Erin Hazlehurst, spends most of the runtime fleshing out Grace. It makes sense to a certain extent, as someone will need to act as the audience proxy once Aubrey is out of the picture. Still, no other representative of the seven deadly sins receives near as much character development. That means that it’s hard to care when they start dying, let alone remember which sin is which. Devoid of tension or any real emotional stakes, there’s no rooting interest in this mystery.
Between the gorgeous mountainous setting and Stirling Bancroft’s slick cinematography, The Sinners is a stylish film with a moody aesthetic. Fleeting glimpses into the highly religious community that helped create this mean girl clique bolsters the vibe. It gives just enough to provide teases of a more insidious rot within the town but not enough to delve into anything meaningful.
The Sinners lacks cohesion. There’s clear ambition on display, but it spirals out of control. Paige introduces late-game characters that serve no purpose whatsoever to the plot. Hard-boiled detectives (Lochlyn Munro and Michael Eklund) show up for a scene then disappear without a mention or justification for their inclusion at all. When the mystery does finally show its hand, it’s met with a puzzling head tilt and eye roll as the killer proceeds to lay out their entire warbled plan. Paige doesn’t bother to foreshadow or lay any groundwork for the big reveals.
Paige’s debut might resonate with a younger audience, but it otherwise unravels at the slightest tug of its plot threads. The Sinners prefers to tell over show; expect major plot beats to unveil through lengthy exposition dumps that still don’t bring clarity. It contributes to a confusing plot without any emotional heft. Supporting characters either get forgotten or casually thrown around without meaning, and clunky dialogue compounds the issues. The visual style is there, and buried beneath the convoluted, clunky narrative are seeds of intriguing ideas that should’ve been explored further. Overall, The Sinners makes a mess of blending two subgenres well-suited for each other.
The Sinners released on VOD February 19, 2021.