A Measure of the Sin

United States, 2013. Directed by Jeff Wedding. Starring Katie Groshong, Starina Johnson, Stephen Jackson, Dale Rainey. 76 minutes.

I’m not entirely sure at what point I realized the events of A Measure of the Sin were meant to be approached symbolically, not literally, but I’m pretty sure I figured it out before the bear showed up.

Let me rewind. Meredith (Katie Groshong) is one of three young women who live in an ancient rambling house with an unnamed old man (Stephen Jackson). The precise relationship between the characters is unclear. While the Old Man doesn’t hold the women captive in the physical sense, he obviously exerts a psychological hold over them and controls their lives. When Meredith was a child–a time period the film extensively delineates via flashback–she lived with her mother in what seems like a similar state of emotional captivity. Then her mother died, and she ended up with the Old Man (although the film implies a deeper and tighter connection between the two) and the two other women, and that’s when the bear comes into play.

Despite the Old Man’s protestations to the contrary, Meredith knows that a bear secretly lives in the house and roams its halls when the others are asleep. One night, the bear (clearly an actor in a bear suit) comes to her room and rapes and impregnates her. The experience convinces her she must soon escape the Old Man and the house, for if she doesn’t, she will never again be able to bring herself to do so.

The symbolism here is pretty obvious (no one bothers to ask who the father of Meredith’s unborn child is, meaning there’s only one logical possibility), but it has the potential to be powerful. Yet co-writers Jeff Wedding (who also directed) and Kirsty Nielsen work hard to bury that potential.

The film is very light on dialog, with the exposition delivered to the audience by way of Meredith’s inner monologue. Seventy-five minutes of voiceover narration is an unusual way to present a modern motion picture–as viewers, we’re trained to prefer “showing” to “telling.” Meredith’s narration is overly poetic and borders on pretentious: “Survival is simple. It is a serrated stone you must swallow, vomit up, and then swallow again.” (Or something like that.) The film is apparently based on a prose story written by Nielsen, and perhaps that style of writing works on the page, but it certainly doesn’t work in the voice of Groshong, who sounds like she’s reading a middle-school essay on what she did over her summer vacation.

This is the film’s fatal flaw but it is not by any means its only one. There simply isn’t enough story to cover its comparatively meager (by feature-film standards) running time, and there’s too much padding. Meredith is the only character who receives any sort of development, and what passes for supporting performances isn’t particularly impressive. (This is particularly the case with the two actresses who play Meredith’s fellow captives.) The one possible saving grace is Wedding’s directorial style: ethereal and dreamlike, almost like a fairy tale, but in the end it’s not enough.

I can imagine an approach to this material that works. But as it stands, A Measure of the Sin is plodding slog of a film I found nearly impossible to take seriously.

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