Can we truly forgive the sinner?
Review: The Sinner
Starring: Jessica Biel, Bill Pullman, Christopher Abbott, Abby Miller
A woman snaps and murders a complete stranger on the beach. She pleads guilty and offers no explanation. One detective wants to figure out why.
This is the hook for The Sinner. A fascinating thriller that explores relationships, deception, and mental health, and it has recently arrived on Netflix. Jessica Biel, who produced and stars as Cora, the woman who carries out the brutal and out-of-character attack in the show’s opening.
Based on Petra Hammesfahr’s book of the same title , the eight-episode miniseries progresses to unravel Cora’s motives and flashes back to her childhood, a strict, shame-oriented Catholic household.
The question of who the titular ‘Sinner’ is something of an open one, however. A lot has been done to Cora, and she reacts out of this violence. The deeper mystery has several layers and the plot twist is not what seems clear at first. As The Guardian’s Stuart Heritage puts it, the show could be best described as a “whydunnit”.
The characters all keep secrets, bouncing in and out of one another’s lives only long enough to cause pain. Detective Harry Ambrose (Bill Pullman) tries to help Cora, yet seemingly can’t stop seeing a sex worker, despite the threat to his marriage. Cora has been hurt at one point or another by most of the men in the story.
Bill Pullman commented on the idea of sin in a recent Variety interview with Biel: “People, even beyond the church-going experience, have co-opted this idea of what is right and wrong,” Pullman said. “Sinning, whether they think of it the same way as a Catholic would, it still means that they understand that there’s some baser aspect of themselves, that they’ve broken some convenance they’re living under. We’re all doing it all the time. We’re all sinners.”
For reasons that cannot be entirely explored in order to avoid spoilers, The Sinner makes for a great exploration of bad theology’s potential for destruction. The relationship between Cora and her parents contrasts with the relationship she forms with a prayer circle in the prison.
Perhaps the most interesting conceit of the show is that it demonstrates how the patriachal nature of religion can traumatise. As a child, Cora had little control over the power-based abuse happening in her family and it is not until she is in prison that she in introduced to the truly relational aspects of what it means to be a Christian, when she is invited to a prison prayer group. We are well aware of institutional-based and religious abuse to harm, but it is genuine relational faith that has the power to heal.
The Sinner is a violent show but does not dwell on this violence to the extent that it becomes gratuitous. At some points it is nonetheless difficult to watch, and there is a noticeable dip in the show’s middle portion. Nonetheless, this is a series worth persevering with—and thinking about.
All eight episodes of The Sinner are streaming on Netflix now and are rated MA 15+
Jonathan Foye is Insights’ editor