Perfect Contrition

A traumatized priest haunted by visions of his violent past obligingly serves a rural parish while indulging in a long distance affair, but his vindictive compulsion is sparked when he’s wrongly blamed for the deaths of two troubled altar boys.

Father Thomas Waneright is a traumatized middle-aged Catholic priest serving a dwindling parish in an economically depressed upstate New York hamlet. Haunted by the childhood death of his brother and his failure to protect innocent Rwandans during the country’s genocide 23-years earlier, Waneright is emotionally and physically crippled during recurring visions of these tragedies.

To cope with his anxiety Waneright writes a book about the misanthropic French novelist Louis-Ferdinand Céline. He also continues a longtime affair with his paramour Dare, a New York City-based Asian-American nurse practitioner he met in Rwanda before the genocide.

Dare understands that Waneright is still devastated by the massacre of his parishioners at the hands of the Interahamwe militia during the 1994 genocide. However, after she witnesses him suffer a traumatic breakdown in their Manhattan hotel room he divulges that he burned the killers alive while they slept in his church in an effort to atone for what he views as a fatal sin. Dare questions the value and morality of atonement through murder, but Waneright believes he repented through punishment with impunity — the paradigm of revenge.

Waneright’s actions following his older brother’s death by hanging at 14 are even more suspect. With no evidence a then 12-year-old Waneright accuses his alcoholic father of murder as punishment for neglecting his family, which results in the man’s incarceration and subsequent suicide.

Waneright says he feels no remorse for sending his father to jail or for killing the Interahamwe but has yet forgiven himself for preventing the deaths of his brother and his Rwandan parishioners.

Dare tries to convince Waneright to leave his parish and reside in the city but he ambivalently returns upstate.

Waneright’s first duty back at his parish is leading a funeral mass with the support of a pair of stoned altar boys, Sig and Al.

The two teens are close friends but come from opposite backgrounds. Sig’s family once operated the third largest rock salt mine in the world and their ancestry includes a general in Washington’s revolutionary army for whom their hamlet is named. Al’s father, a long distance truck driver, abandoned his family to penury. However the boys are linked by the abject dysfunction they endure at home.

Sig visits Al at his place and the two indulge in a night of debauchery to forget their considerable troubles. Al’s mother Lulu and older sister Martha moonlight as prostitutes at the truck stop where they work as waitresses. Sig’s twin sister Hildy and father Rich appear to be in an inappropriate relationship following the recent death of Sig’s mother and the closing of the family’s salt mine that has diminished their fortune and prominence.

After entertaining clients the previous night Martha returns with her mother in the morning to find her brother dead.

The local sheriff Jake determines Al’s death is due to a heroin overdose. Concerned about an epidemic flooding his territory he tries to enlist Waneright to help identify the source of the drug. However, the priest is reluctant to get involved with the sordid affair of the altar boy.

But during Al’s funeral Waneright sees visions of his dead brother, the Interahamwe, and Al sparking the fear he’ll again fail to prevent the deaths of innocents. Standing over Al’s grave following the burial, Waneright pledges his support to Jake.

Complicating matters, Dar arrives on the pretense of researching the circumstances of Al’s death for a fictitious study about heroin overdoses she’s contrived, but her true intention is to glimpse Waneright’s clerical life upstate.

To district himself from his worries Waneright drinks with his confidant Lucky Freddy, a local liquor storeowner, smalltime gambler and Jake’s brother. When Lucky Freddy informs him that a bookie is withholding their winnings from a recent bet, Waneright suggest they visit the man. Lucky Freddy drives Waneright to the bookie’s house curious how the priest plans to get their money. Without provocation Waneright beats the bookie and one of his associates then forcibly recovers the cash. Stunned by Waneright’s ferocity, Lucky Freddy goes to a bar to clear his head.

Waneright returns to the rectory to find Dare waiting. He rebuffs her advances but allows to her stay in the first floor guest room. When Lucky Freddy arrives drunk in the middle of night to question Waneright about his violent outburst Dare jumps him from behind and pins him down believing he’s an intruder. Waneright rushes downstairs to save his friend from an imminent beat-down.

The three convene in the rectory parlor to smooth over the embarrassing incident. While Waneright is in the kitchen preparing drinks Dare and Lucky Freddy bond over Waneright’s past. Knowing that as a teen Lucky Freddy accidentally killed his father during a hunting accident she relates the story of Waneright’s brother’s death and the priest’s subsequent fall into juvenile detention due to a violent assault. Dare further explains that it was during his incarceration that Waneright met a priest named Father Ed who mentored and led him toward the priesthood.

Waneright joins them with the aim of covering his true relationship with Dare from Lucky Freddy, while keeping Dare ignorant of his assault on the bookie. As a diversion Waneright admits he still finds dealing out punishment is often more spiritually fulfilling than forgiveness.

The following day Sig is found dead on his family’s estate hanging from a tree. Jake rules the death a suicide.

Rich tries to convince Hildy that Waneright violated Sig and is responsible for his suicide. Rich explains he plans to sue the Catholic Church for the wrongful death of his son and use the money to restore his family’s fortune and influence by reopening the salt mine. Hildy rejects her father’s claim arguing Sig would have confided the priest’s alleged abuse to her.

Later, Hildy tells Waneright in the confessional box that she believes her father killed Sig. When asked if she can prove it Hildy says no but insists she knows Rich did it. She also hints that Rich sexually abuses her. After Lulu declines to join Rich in his proposed lawsuit he confronts Waneright with the hope it will lead to a quick payout. Waneright believes Rich has come to confess killing Sig. After voicing his allegations of abuse, Waneright responds by coolly taking down Rich with a leg whip, leaving him helplessly on the ground.

While Rich’s accusations are false, Waneright understands they could at the very least tarnish his reputation and possibly ruin his career. The strain of these fears lead him to a mental collapse during which he experiences three visions of figures who have profoundly influenced his life: his mentor Father Ed, the author Céline and the Pontiff in the form of Francis Bacon’s Screaming Pope, who Waneright strangles on the altar.

Dare rouses Waneright from his breakdown and informs him that Hildy has pointed to evidence proving Rich is the source of heroin. During the car ride to confront Rich Lucky Freddy discloses that Hildy also told Dar that Rich killed her mother and Sig, and sexually abuses her.

Convinced of Rich’s guilt on all counts, Waneright meets with him in an abandoned artist’s studio in the forest and gives him the opportunity to confess and seek forgiveness. Rich, who believes Waneright has come to help facilitate a deal with the church, is incredulous and cursorily rejects Waneright’s offer.

Waneright then strangles and buries Rich in an effort to protect Hildy, stop the distribution of heroin and safeguard his reputation. Ultimately, Waneright believes killing Rich will lead to redemption for the death of his brother and the massacre of his Rwandan parishioners.

The next day Hildy gives Dare a bag of cash with instructions to deliver it to Waneright. Dare correctly infers that it’s related to Rich’s sudden disappearance but wrongly assumes that Hildy seduced Waneright. Mortified, Dare renounces and leaves Waneright, who is too absorbed in thought to acknowledge her as he slowly begins realize his tragic error.

After Waneright risks his life and soul in a mortal act of revenge, Hildy reveals to him that she and Sig were the source of heroin and that Sig killed himself due to guilt for contributing to Al’s accidental death. She admits that her father did not sexually abuse her. Instead, she and Sig engaged in an incestuous relationship. She confesses that she framed her father as revenge for his seeming indifference to the deaths of her mother and brother, along with the fall of their family from prominence and wealth to near extinction.

The revelations shatter Waneright. Instead of attaining redemption and peace of mind, he falls deeper into sin and regret.

Hildy too is suffering the consequences of her actions. Her corrupt soul and moldering spirit is reflected by her physical decay, as she appears to have stepped out of her grave. When Waneright asks her what she wants, Hildy replies that she wants to die.

Before the baptism of Lucky Freddy’s grandson Jake informs Waneright that Hildy survived a suicide attempt. A note she penned beforehand names Rich as the source of heroin. She also accuses him of killing her ailing mother then defiling his daughter. Finally, she states that after Sig learned about the sexual abuse and threatened to expose his father, Rich garroted Sig to make it appear a suicide. Jake concludes that Rich is a wanted man on the run.

Despite his immunity in Rich’s death, Waneright’s conscious is stricken by his fatal act in the following months. He wanders through the woods gaunt, bruised and cut — evidence that he’s suffering more frequent and severe breakdowns. He halts in a clearing next to a cairn marking Rich’s shallow grave, drops to the ground and begins shoveling dirt into his mouth, first slowly then manically.

Hildy walks into the scene then kneels behind Waneright and takes hold of him. Waneright crumbles and falls back into her arms. The pair strike a pose resembling the Pietà as the snow falls on them.

For the first time in his life Waneright is truly penitent and achieves the act of perfect contrition.

Script Excerpt
Written by:
Starring Roles For:
40 Year Old Rugged Actor
Asian woman 30s
17ish, 18ish, female
In the Vein Of:
The Bad lieutenant
Blue Velvet
The Exterminating Angel
Author Bio:
James Palmer is a former war reporter and photographer who covered civil and regional conflicts in East Africa, South Asia, and the Middle East, including the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

His stories and photos appeared in newspapers, magazines and news agency wires including the Guardian, Daily Telegraph, Washington Post, Toronto Star, San Francisco Chronicle, Christian Science Monitor, Der Spiegel and Reuters, among others.

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Contest Results:
Barcelona Festival (First Place, First Time Screenwriter) [2018]
Amsterdam (Third Place, First Time Screenwriter) [2018]
Scriptapalooza Features/Shorts (Quarterfinalist) [2018]
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