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A Murder Mystery, 'Penance,' on Sundance Now
May 21, 2020  | By David Hinckley

Rosalie Douglas’s world has been shattered to pieces. So imagine how happy she is when a stranger unexpectedly arrives with a glue gun.

Unless, of course, it’s really a mallet.

Rosalie Douglas (Julie Graham, top) is the betrayed wife and grieving mother in Penance, a dark murder mystery and psychodrama premiering Thursday on Sundance’s streaming service, Sundance Now.

Penance only runs three episodes, each an hour-long, meaning it’s really more like a three-part movie. Accordingly, it sticks to a fairly narrow story without a lot of subplots. That’s a smart decision.

We meet Rosalie on Christmas Eve, bantering lightly in the kitchen with her daughter Maddie (Tallulah Greive), who seems to be perhaps in her late teens.

There’s a bit of tension when her husband, Luke (Neil Morrissey), enters, but things perk up when they get to a potential visit from their 19-year-old son Rob.

Instead, they get an unexpected visit from the police, who notify them that Rob won’t be coming home. Ever. His body was found in the ocean near the place where he had been staying with friends.

The official verdict: an accident. Rosalie doesn’t buy it, and when she speaks with Rob’s friend who was there the night Rob died, the friend doesn’t provide much clarity. “We were all pretty wasted,” she says, looking uncomfortable.

Speaking of wasted, Maddie has also fallen apart in the wake of her brother’s death. Rosalie finally talks her into going to a grief counseling group at their church, and there they meet a young fellow named Jed Cousins (Nico Mirallegro).

Jed shares with the group that his parents were killed in an auto accident when he was 4-years-old and that he spent most of his adolescence acting out. This eventually distanced him from the Nana who raised him, and when she died, he suddenly felt great remorse and the need to straighten himself out.

Maddie is touched by the story and drawn to Jed, marking the first time in months that she has smiled. Rosalie encourages them and begins inviting Jed over for meals and general company.

It sounds like a potential healing development, except that their priest, Father Tom Hayes (Art Malik), warns Rosalie that Jed might not be what he seems.

Rosalie doesn’t need this complication since there’s also an ongoing problem with Luke. But as sometimes happens when a stranger becomes a big part of a family’s life at a vulnerable moment, a bad decision has serious consequences that make everything potentially troubled.

While Rob’s death looms in the background, the more immediate drama in Penance concerns our living characters, and we viewers don’t know much more than the screen characters about what has really gone on, or likely lies ahead.

Penance turns into a solid psychological thriller as it gradually becomes clear that something bad will either happen or perhaps, at best, simply be revealed.

We may dread the answer, but we don’t have to wait a terribly long time to get it.

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