Edgar Allan Poe said that “the death of a beautiful woman is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world.” Many genre filmmakers would most likely agree with this statement, as sex, beauty, and death have been united onscreen ever since cinematic horror began. However, these days, most audiences know what to expect when they pay good money to see the latest slasher, haunted house thriller, or monster-mayhem movie: young, beautiful women having sex with their boyfriends or husbands, subsequently being chased by the knife-wielding madman or otherworldly entity, and eventually being hacked to bits. Though reworked to death, this formula still retains its popularity today.
For this reason, among others, certain films will stand out for spinning genres on their heads and presenting to audiences something they have never seen before. Carol Conley’s short, Penitence, is one such movie, a meditative, disturbing, and ultimately powerful depiction of terror, pain, remorse, and sadness. Though not a traditional horror movie in any way, Conley’s short will have viewers squirming in their seats as the primary characters have a fateful encounter that is both disquieting and riveting to watch. Paranormal thrillers and “spook”-fests aside, this is the kind of film that haunts you for days after you see it.
The short stars Don Martone as Bobby, a muscular, soft-spoken ex-con who has been recently released from prison. Either a gentle giant or a lethal threat–at the start of the picture audiences are unsure which would describe Bobby’s character best. He decides to pay a visit to a woman he knew when he was a kid–she’s now much older and dying of cancer. Frail and living alone, Maggie (Marlyn Mason) can barely sit up from the couch, and Bobby has no trouble walking directly into her apartment and confronting her. At this point, audiences wonder, “What am I about to watch? What kind of film is this?” Is Bobby simply visiting an old friend or mentor, or is he seeking revenge for a past wrong? Or is something even darker afoot? It’s impossible to say much more without giving away key pieces of the plot, but the answers to the above questions will keep audiences glued to their seats as Penitence unfolds. And, indeed, what unfolds is raw, unapologetic, and unnerving–and yet, at the same time, also tender and heartbreaking. It’s rare for any film, especially a short one, to stir up such a varied mix of emotion, but Conley’s Penitence will do just that to viewers fortunate enough to come across it.
While Conley’s direction is confident and clear-headed throughout, Sam Eilertsen’s camera refuses to look away from one drawn-out moment of indescribable suffering and regret. Adding to the tension are the performances of both Martone and Mason, who bring such courage to their roles that it’s impossible to imagine any other actors tackling these challenging characters. The climax left me with difficult questions about each character’s intent, while the script itself (penned by Conley) cuts like a blade through everything that audiences might consider sacred. This is bold, shocking filmmaking that never looks down upon its subjects, no matter the sins of their past. You won’t be able to look away from Penitence, nor will you be able to forget it.
Currently, the film is screening at various film festivals, but will hopefully see some kind of widespread release in the near future. At around 11 minutes long, Penitence and all of those involved–Conley, Martone, Mason, and the rest of the production team–deserve an incredible amount of praise for a highly effective and memorable film.