MRR Review: "Repentance"

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A successful author and spiritual advisor takes on a troubled man as a client, completely unaware that the man's fixation on his mother's death will soon put his life in jeopardy
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Rating: R
Length: 90 minutes
Release Date: February 28, 2014
Directed by: Philippe Caland
Genre: Horror / Thriller

Four years following an alcohol-fueled car crash that was his fault, and which almost killed him, Tommy Carter (played by Anthony Mackie) has changed himself into a spiritual guru and therapist who hinges his teachings on maintaining a positive outlook and relying on what he considers the best of the world's religious wisdom. He meets Angel Sanchez (Forest Whitaker) at a launch event for his new book, which contains his teachings in condensed form. Sanchez, it turns out, is bereft over the death of his mother. Carter takes him on as a client, mostly to earn money for his always-in-debt, blue-collar brother Ben (Mike Epps), not realizing that the troubled man needs more help than he could ever offer.

Carter's life with his yoga instructor wife (played by Sanaa Lathan) appeared to be up-ended prior to his meeting Sanchez. This was thanks to the unexpected arrival of his brother who needed to borrow money and, for an unknown length of time, a place to sleep.

Soon after taking on Sanchez, who is happy to pay his $300-per-hour fee, Carter realizes the man's problems go far deeper than he realized. He decides to break off their client-therapist relationship. However, Sanchez reacts violently, cornering Carter in his New Orleans home, where he tortures him physically and psychologically, demanding all the while that he confess his sins. In the process, Sanchez reveals how psychotic he actually is as well as how astute, using Carter's own teachings against him. As it becomes clearer that Sanchez is dangerously unstable, and probably has been for some time, the viewer wonders how his estranged ex (Nicole Ari Parker) could have decided to leave their daughter, Francesca (Ariana Neal) in his care.

At first the viewer has no idea which particular "sin" Sanchez wants Carter to confess to committing. Carter does not seem to know either, but after enduring many torments, he eventually begins to open up about the misgivings of his past, beginning in childhood. French and Lebanese director Philippe Caland ("Ripple Effect") injects a touch of the supernatural into the film, which, in no small part owing to its setting, works. The viewer is never sure if he is seeing something truly from the afterlife or if it is a figment of the characters' imaginations, but in the end it does not really matter.

Caland is known for blurring the lines between fantasy and reality in his films. He wrote the screenplay for the 1993 art film "Boxing Helena," in which the main character loses all grip with reality. That film, which drew a mixed reaction from critics, either thrilled or vexed many viewers. It is rare to see black characters in a psychological thriller, which makes "Repentance" an interesting take on the genre. In fact, Caland decided to remake his 2012 film, "The Guru and the Gypsy," which starred mainly white actors, using an all-black cast.

What makes the film powerful is its tension between the two male leads. The viewer remains in suspense through much of the story, as power shifts from one character to the other and it becomes less and less clear who is being truthful and who is being deceptive. As always, Whitaker turns in a strong, engaging performance, reminding audiences why he is so respected in the industry. Mackie and Epps also show good range, with Epps, who is known more for his comedy roles, playing an abrasive never-do-well with authenticity and Mackie successfully managing to play the part of a man who has begun to believe his own mythology.

The female cast members are not offered the same opportunity to show depth in their acting, serving primarily as means to move the story along. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as the viewer tends to want to stick with Carter and Sanchez as much as possible. After all, they are where this film's action is. The film evokes the same type of intimate tension viewers may remember experiencing in films such as "Death and the Maiden," directed by Roman Polanski and starring Sigourney Weaver and Ben Kingsley, and "Magnolia," directed by Paul Thomas Anderson.

"Repentance" warns of the high price a person pays for being a false spiritual teacher or leader and warns that it is not always possible to feel redemption after committing an act one regrets with all one's heart, no matter how many good deeds one performs later. In the end, it seems to suggest, everyone is a sinner, each as guilty as the next.

Rating: 3 out of 5