Many of us don’t like to think about the day in which the lights turn off for good. But heavy must be the heart and mind when we are the ones responsible for turning them off for another, especially when it is a child. This is the dilemma that saddles our lead in the sobering, small-budget film Penitent.
We first meet Jason Buckley (Michael Linehan) as he’s being released from prison for this very crime. The incident was indeed an accident, but trace amounts of drugs from another passenger in the car increased his penalty for the crime. The situation still haunts him as we hear the various voices of the arrest and trial echo around his head. Perhaps Jason could have argued for leniency as the drugs were not his, but maybe he felt as though he deserved his imprisonment.
With his time served, as the film’s title suggests, Jason feels as though he owes more. He sets out to gain legitimate work and dutifully contribute to society. His path to accomplish this is made all the more difficult as he dwells in a rather corrupt part of town, filled with pain and poisonous denizens. Jason remains steadfast in his journey, though, which possibly could include a compassionate ladyfriend. But given his situation, there are no inevitable conclusions here.
“…Jason…manages to scrape together some sense of stability with menial cleaning and repair jobs…”
We follow Jason as he manages to scrape together some sense of stability with menial cleaning and repair jobs in a local office. His efforts are appreciated by his supervisors, which add momentary flickers of light, but at the end of the day, Jason must return home. Home is where hope hides at the bottom of pints, needles, and other destructive coping mechanisms. Jason’s meager one-room flat floats in a sea of violence, addiction, and menace so prevalent that he often sleeps with a knife by his side. Even when he is alone, he cannot escape the sounds of his past that continue to haunt him.
Making his feature film debut, Dublin-born director Brian Stynes obviously did not have a bloated budget with which to work. Thankfully he invested in a bleak but stunning script from writer/star Linehan, whose writing and acting cast a large shadow over Penitent. Stynes revels in the simplicity of the story, never adding more flourishes than scenes call for and allowing Linehan’s performance to do much of the heavy lifting.
Throughout the film’s hour runtime, we root for him, as Lineham presents us with such a lived-in performance captured by Stynes’ pragmatic lens. In fact, there is an authenticity that pervades Penitent through its style and performances that call to mind the social realist style of director Ken Loach. It’s more concerned with resolutions that feel raw, real, and true than the varnish of big-studio productions.
With Penitent, all involved have crafted a pointed and poignant drama that digs deep for its emotions, and even though it can show humanity at its lowest points, it keeps its audience engaged and hungry for the conclusion, whatever path that may be.
"…a pointed and poignant drama that digs deep for its emotions..."