Describing it as a cross between Misery, What Lies Beneath and Eve’s Bayou has the unfortunate side effect of making director Philippe Caland’s Repentance sound a lot more interesting than it actually is. A yawning, mopey thriller that unsuccessfully tries to blend psychological portraiture with pointless tension derived from torture, Caland’s film wastes a couple of invested performances that outstrip the material’s intelligence deficit.
Repentance unfolds in New Orleans, where author and life coach Tommy Carter (Anthony Mackie) lives with his yoga instructor wife, Maggie (Sanaa Lathan), peddling positivity and a vague sort of synthesized religiosity. Dormant familial tensions get front-burnered when Tommy’s screw-up older brother, Ben (Mike Epps), turns up out of the blue needing money and a place to crash.
Trying to help out Ben, Tommy decides to take on an individual client who approached him at a book signing—Angel Sanchez (Forest Whitaker), a troubled handyman whose daughter, Francesca (Ariana Neal), is also a student in one of Maggie’s children’s classes. Angel is fixated on the untimely death of his mother, and while Tommy’s work with him initially seems to have some benefit, he reacts violently when Tommy attempts to bring their professional relationship to an end. A confused Angel holds Tommy against his will, and begins to inflict his own brand of twisted therapy.
Caland, a French-Lebanese immigrant, has led one of those fantastically weird and charmed lives touching upon all sorts of entrepreneurial endeavors. He was a producer on Boxing Helena and the founder of JuntoBox Films, which provides a crowd-sourcing vehicle for independent filmmakers. A number of his previous directorial efforts have been of the “inside Hollywood” variety, about a filmmaker nobly struggling to make their movie, and Repentance itself is allegedly a remake of a film with the same narrative, in which Caland directed himself in the role Whitaker plays here. The basic takeaway of all this is the polite suggestion that perhaps moviemaking is not the occupation for which Caland is best suited—at least on a creative level.
While Repentance is obviously shot on a low budget, Caland and director of photography Denis Maloney never shake off a boring, boxy visual imagining of the material, or take advantage of on-location surroundings, except for a couple scenes set outdoors at a river for no particular reason. Most of what’s wrong with the film, though, is that it feels so programmatic and predictable, even as it eschews scenes of conflict with supporting characters that would deepen its relationships. For instance, it’s past the one-hour mark before Angel’s estranged wife, Sophie (Nicole Ari Parker), even pops up.
At its core, Repentance just doesn’t have characters that make sense. Angel can be disturbed and operating from a place of confusion, or acting with more agency and premeditation, but not both. Caland doesn’t seem to have answered this very basic question, and consequently his film comes across as both conventional and phony—no small feat. Then there’s the fact that the movie’s cold open hints at a very specific tragedy, so when the requisite Dark Secret is revealed under duress in the last 10 minutes, it has even less punching power.
Whitaker, who delivers a good performance, has worked with Caland previously. But it feels like everyone else got roped into the project based simply on the chance to play something different than that for which they’re called on most often. Well, I partially take that back—the female characters are just ciphers and emotive placeholders. But Mackie and Epps show some nice range. The latter is surly and standoffish, never once sliding into a winking silliness that would betray Ben’s bitterness. Mackie, meanwhile, injects just a pinch of officiousness into his performance, and does a good job of comporting himself in a manner that aligns with the cerebral walls his character has built up and invested in.
At a certain point, though, it becomes apparent Repentance doesn’t have any interesting ideas on how to bridge its inciting action and inevitable payoff. So when it dips into sub-Saw-type torture—err, sorry, enhanced interrogation—well … then it just becomes inane. As a result, few viewers will leave this film in a forgiving mood.
Director: Philippe Caland
Writer: Shintaro Shimosawa, based on the film The Guru and the Gypsy by Philippe Caland
Starring: Anthony Mackie, Forest Whitaker, Sanaa Lathan, Mike Epps, Nicole Ari Parker
Release Date: Feb. 28, 2014