Shot on an ultra-low budget, Penitent is a bleak slice-of-life drama that showcases the passion of its cast and crew in every frame.
Jason (Michael Linehan) is released from prison to little fanfare. On the outside, he continues to live in a prison of his own making. Always paranoid and looking over his shoulder, he has no friends to speak of, and sleeps with a flick blade by his side.
Away from his one-room flat, he’s haunted by visions of his deceased friend, Joe. At night, he is haunted by past tragedies.
A small budget doesn’t have to stand in the way of producing a good film. Some low-budget films – the latest Bulgarian Steven Seagal action flick, for example – are derided because they pretend to be big, and don’t take advantage of their small scale.
Penitent’s low budget works in its favour. The handheld, point-and-shoot nature of the film makes it look like a docudrama. It’s a gritty film, that looks and feels realistic because of its pared-back nature.
Vignettes run alongside Jason’s story and give us a better sense of the community in which he lives.
In one sequence, two teenage girls tease Amy, a young neighbour with special needs, which results in an intergenerational brawl when Amy’s mother comes to her defense.
A mysterious woman watches from inside her car as people come and go, a local addict shoots up in the backseat of a parked car as her boyfriend chastises her.
Penitent’s world is grim. And there is no escape in sight for Jason or his neighbours.
At home, Jason watches cartoons on his computer, knife in hand. The sound effects and circus style become eerie as they fail to drown out the noises coming from the unhappy homes that make up this grey street. This is where second chances come to die.
Jason has some small success through his work as a cleaner and handyman at a local office building. The management and his mentor are happy with his progress and there appears to be a modicum of hope for him away from home.
The rest of Jason’s life is not as promising. He is verbally abused by a gang of teenagers as he walks to his flat, security guards watch him closely at the shops, and local criminals coerce him with threats of violence.
Michael Linehan is short and stocky, he looks like a bruiser, but plays Jason as timid and vulnerable. Now and then, we see a childlike glint in his eyes.
Dublin-born director Brian Stynes and the cast bring an improvisational feeling to the film.
Camerawork often feels covert, as if we are spying on the characters. Onlookers get caught up in some crowd sequences, which adds to the film’s cinéma vérité feel.
Stynes also makes frequent use of extreme close-ups, particularly on Linehan’s Jason. He tells the audience everything they need to know about his guilt and anguish in a faraway look or a furrowed brow.
Linehan and the other cast members perform to the strengths of Stynes’ determined and intimate directing style. These are quiet performances. Even at their loudest moments, they feel grounded, heavy with the weight of the world.
A little way into Penitent, I felt a great sense of unease come over me. I knew a story like this could only end in one way. I was still surprised, though, by how the film got to its violent ending. Surprised … and a little confused.
My surprise came from the impact of the last couple of sequences, the up-close-and-personal camerawork makes for uncomfortable viewing that effectively sidesteps the violent redemption that so often comes at the end of movies dealing with similar themes and issues.
My confusion came from the particulars of how the film got to this point. The motivations behind the film’s final confrontation aren’t made crystal clear, but don’t detract from what’s gone before; it’s a fittingly sombre ending to this hard-edged story.
With Penitent, Hard Bargain Productions have made an intriguing knot out of their shoestring budget. It’s a film that’s as engaging as a puzzle as it is as a story. We get uncomfortably close to these desperate characters, but we want to be there.
The dedication and passion behind Penitent is clear, and you should make a point to see it.
Penitent is currently available through Amazon Instant Video.