The title of The Last Sin Eater refers to a ritual that hails from the British Isles, in which a designated “sin eater” (a beggar or homeless man, usually) provides absolution to recently deceased people by eating bread and drinking ale over their corpses, thus taking their sins onto himself and allowing the dead passage into heaven.

Much like the scapegoat in Old Testament Judaism, the sin eater was shunned by the community except when he was needed. Oddly enough, there was another recent movie about sin eaters, Brian Helgeland’s thoroughly bizarre 2003 thriller The Order, which starred Heath Ledger. The new movie boasts a more coherent and less obscure story. Other considerations, however, keep it from being any good. The film’s set in 1850 among a community of Welsh immigrants in Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains. The main character is Cadi Forbes (Liana Liberato — great name!), a 10-year-old girl who’s racked with guilt after the recent accidental death of her sister. When she watches the sin eater (Peter Wingfield) do his business at her grandmother’s funeral, she becomes obsessed with tracking down the hooded man and having him absolve her sins while she’s still alive.

The movie is adapted from Francine Rivers’ novel (which I must admit I haven’t read) by Michael Landon Jr., the son of the late tv star and the writer-director of a series of small-screen adaptations of Janette Oke novels. He does a fair job of setting things up, and Cadi’s early encounters with the sin eater carry some genuine spookiness. Unfortunately, the movie too neatly dismisses its most intriguing element, i.e. the sin eater. The character of a traveling preacher (Henry Thomas) is introduced solely to tell us that Jesus makes the sin eater unnecessary. This is fine theologically, but what about the callousness toward the spiritual welfare of the sin eater himself, or the class prejudice of using this practice to throw some scraps of food at a local beggar while keeping him at arm’s length? The movie ignores this in favor of a political subplot involving a murderous community leader (Stewart Finlay-McLennan, an Australian actor whose attempt at a Welsh accent sounds closer to Calcutta than Cardiff).

He’s the worst offender in this cast assembled from various corners of the English-speaking world. With the “name” actors in this production (Louise Fletcher as a village elder, and Thomas) falling disappointingly flat, it falls to Galveston native Liberato to carry this thing. She loses the handle on her accent in the more emotional scenes, but elsewhere she’s pretty good with it, and she’s decent in the role. Still, when the movie bogs down in Indian massacres and tedious speeches, she sinks along with everything else. If you’re interested in a scary movie about a young girl dealing with sibling-related guilt, you’re better off seeing the horror flick The Messengers, which came out last week. It’s scarier, more economical, and has greater psychological depth. It may not have the overt Christian message of The Last Sin Eater, but it’s a much more viable piece of entertainment.