“This story isn’t about truth, or love – this story is about sin.” says Aubrey Miller (Brenna Llewellyn) in voiceover near the beginning of The Sinners (aka The Color Rose). The film opens in medias res: Aubrey is on her knees praying when a car pulls up behind her, and six young women in masks get out, chloroform Aubrey and bundle her into the car boot. We then see her lifeless body beside a Holy Bible and a pair of gardening gloves, a red rose protruding from the mouth, as her voiceover declares, “This is how my body ended up at the bottom of a lake.” Dead men may tell no tales, but this dead schoolgirl, cut off in her graduating year in the ‘summer of my life’, has a twisty, twisted tale to tell from beyond the grave – a story of lies, masquerades, deepest sin and darkest redemption.
As Aubrey’s narration rewinds to the beginning, the first thing we see is a US flag, marking this story as an allegory of America. In a devout Christian community, where everyone’s conduct is closely monitored at home, at school and at church for any transgressions, Aubrey has joined a group of Heathers-like Mean Girls known as ‘the Seven Deadly Sins’ for their resistance to the town’s rigid religious norms. Except that Aubrey – associated with the sin of pride – remains deeply pious, and herself observes and judges the other six Sins from her own superior standpoint, making notes on their behaviour in the leather-bound journal that she carries everywhere along with her Holy Bible.
Aubrey may be the teller of this tale, but it is not really her story, but that of Grace Carver (Kaitlyn Bernard), the group’s leader and associated, despite being a virgin, with the sin of lust. Grace is caught in a state of confused intermediacy. She is in the process of breaking up with tenacious boyfriend Kit Anderson (Dylan Playfair) while flirting with fellow Sinner Tori Davidson (Brenna Coates) – both forbidden relationships, given that Kit is a ‘worldly boy’ with no connection to the church community, and that Tori is the same sex as Grace. Grace may be the daughter of strict pastor Dean (Tahmoh Penikett), but she hangs out with the hippies and pagans on the town’s periphery, and dreams of sexualised Satanic rituals. Grace is a classic teen rebel, trying to find herself and empowerment in a world of rules, shame, guilt and judgment – and on this rite of passage, she will do bad things which will have even worse consequences.
At Grace’s instigation, the other Sins turn on Aubrey after she has betrayed their secret sins, forcing her to engage in a ‘devil chant’, and then abducting her to the lakeside cabin of Grace’s family to scare her back into a forced loyalty. Aubrey vanishes, leading to a formal investigation by decent Sheriff Fred Middleton (Aleks Paunovic), himself something of a community outsider. Yet as Grace keeps trying to cover the trail of clues that connects her with Aubrey’s disappearance, one by one the Sins start to get murdered, each body decorated with a different coloured rose – and so this dreamily shot, softly lit story of adolescent angst finds itself switching between the different registers of Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides (1999), Andrew Fleming’s The Craft (1996) and David Fincher’s Se7en (1995).
The directorial debut feature of Courtney Paige, who also co-wrote with Erin Hazelhurst and Madison Smith, The Sinners eventually styles itself a whodunnit and a police procedural – but it also offers a revelation of America’s culture wars, where the battle of faith and secularism creates irresolvable frictions for a nation arrested in its own ideological adolescence. For, caught between holiness and hypocrisy, this small town is a microcosm of tensions pervading the United States at large. One might even say that those tensions are encoded in the conflicted heroine’s very name – Grace suggestive of the divine favour that redeems a sinner, Carver connoting the archetypal slasher. With its dead-girl narrator and parochial mannerisms, this is superficially reminiscent in theme of Jennifer Reeder’s Knives and Skin (2019) – but it plunges into rather different waters, showing teens breaking bad and leaving horrific ripples in their wake.
strap: Courtney Paige’s dreamy slasher The Sinners (aka The Color Rose) pits adolescent girls in the culture war between faith and secularism
© Anton Bitel