‘Repentance’ and the Spiritual Fear of Damnation
“What can you say about a movie so horrific that even its title scares people away?” Stephen King asked that question of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a movie that everyone finds terrifying—but for me? The same could be said of Repentance, a 2013 film directed by Phillippe Caland.
Little in the film’s plot suggests the type of dread invoked by the Tobe Hooper classic. Repentance stars Anthony Mackie as Tommy Carter, a best-selling author and self-help guru who turned his life around after he and his brother Ben (Mike Epps) survived a life-threatening drunk driving accident. Tommy’s story catches the attention of Angel Sanchez (Forest Whitaker), a disturbed father haunted by visions of his late mother.
Despite the great sum of money Angel offers, Tommy initially turns down requests for one-on-one counseling. But after learning that Ben owes $12,000 to a violent gang, Tommy takes on Angel as a client. Angel responds well at first; but during a séance, Angel learns that Tommy is not all that he claims. He subjects Tommy to a grisly torture session, hoping to drill the truth out of him.
If that synopsis makes Repentance sound like a Saw thriller tacked onto an inspirational drama, you’re not far off the mark. The movie’s awkward blend of tones turned off reviewers at the time—but Repentance terrified me, precisely because of its title.
I was raised as a conservative Evangelical Christian, where the word “repentance” carries a lot of weight. Pastors invoke repentance as a warning, urging sinners to stop doing bad things and start doing good things. Even though these pastors didn’t always say it, the word implied a threatening phrase: “Repent, or you will perish.”
As an imaginative kid who truly wanted to be good, I took this warning seriously. I tried to repent of every sin I could think of, but I knew that I didn’t get them all. If I heard a siren wailing in the distance, I hoped that it wasn’t Gabriel’s horn signaling the return of a vengeful Christ, who would punish me for having not yet asked forgiveness for all of my sins. I sat in bed each night and imagined what Hell must be like, examining the day’s activities for any unconfessed transgressions. More than all of the verses about God’s love and the peace Christ promises, the second half of Numbers 32:23 lodged in my brain: “you may be sure that your sin will find you out.”
It’s that same fear that Repentance invokes in me.
Armed with charismatic charm and a million-dollar smile, Mackie makes for a believable spiritual teacher. Even when he’s babbling jargon about becoming pure and overcoming doubt, I find myself caught up in Tommy’s lessons. Tommy tells his patients to “breathe” with a comforting grin and twinkle in his eyes, and we believe that he’s making the world a better place.
But when Ben reminds Tommy that he knows the truth about their fateful night, his guidance becomes more suspect. His attempts to heal Angel feel less like works done for the benefit of humanity and more like a frantic attempt to atone for an unspecified wrong. Early in the film, Tommy underscores a line from his book, “It’s better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.” What once seemed like a bromide becomes a desperate prayer, hope that a candle will be enough to halt the darkness’s unceasing assault.
Repentance builds dread by letting Whitaker indulge his scene-chewing tendencies. Most actors would underplay Angel’s big breakthrough moment, in which he finally admits his fears. Clanard stacks the scene against his actor by stuffing it with too much meaning. Not only is the character given on the nose lines—“I’m all fucked up! I’m empty inside”—but composer Mark Kilian’s score features soaring, inspirational piano. Angel’s monologue ends with a cut to a shot of sunlight literally shining through the clouds.
Rather than defer to these more obvious elements, Whittaker elects to go big. He rolls his head in his hands, shoots upright with a wild-eyed stare, and puncuates his words with unnatural gesticulations. By overselling an already overwrought interaction, Whitaker highlights the discomfort of the confession. Tommy may think Angel’s moving forward, but we viewers feel something is wrong.
This constant unease gives the film its power. Repentance’s first reviewers complained that the final revelation lacked punch, dismissing it as too obvious and ridiculous to be believed. After Angel captures Ben and Tommy’s wife Maggie (Sanaa Lathan), we learn that the brothers not only wrecked their car on the night of the fateful accident, but they also struck Angel’s mother (Adella Gautier). Ignoring the woman’s call for help, Ben throws her into the river to drown, thereby helping Tommy avoid jail time for manslaughter charges.
The revelation comes in the movie’s last ten minutes, quickly followed by a peaceful resolution, thanks to intervention by the ghost of Angel’s mother. Communicating via Angel’s adorable daughter (Ariana Neal), she convinces him to free the captives and embrace light instead. In the movie’s final scene, Angel and his daughter wave at the ghost mom and walk away, accompanied by comforting ivory keystrokes and a cello score.
The moment would be unbearably treacly, were it not for the sound of a gunshot. The gunshot signals a resolution to the preceding scene, in which the newly freed Tommy picks up a gun. Against the pleading of his wife and brother, Tommy declares “We’re spiritually dead,” and eyes the gun.
For the film’s loudest critics, these last few minutes capture everything wrong with Repentance, as it tries to blend nihilistic horror with uplifting family drama. But for me, these minutes are a perfect encapsulation of the film’s impact.
We never doubt that Tommy has become a good man and has helped many people. But when we learn what happened, we understand why Angel tortured him. True to his name, Angel arrives from God to punish Tommy for his insufficient repentance. The torture sequence churns my stomach not because of the hydrogen sprayed into Tommy’s face or the rebar driven through his leg. It’s because I have felt like I deserve similar torture for my shortcomings.
Today, I’m still a practicing Christian. I read my Bible every day, pray often, and attend church regularly (when they were open, anyway). But I’ve largely repented from the Christianity I once followed. I don’t believe in the Devil or Hell, and I understand Christ’s teachings to be about love and peace, not about condemnation or good/bad behaviors. I strive to care for others, not from fear of damnation, but because they too are God’s creation and deserve dignity and safety. When I watch Repentance, I recall the spiritual anxieties that tortured me as a child—but the movie also reminds me that I’m free of that hateful religion. That I’ve repented from condemnation and am working only toward love.