There is little more unnerving than uncertainty. The imagination’s leaps at the dead of night are given ground by occasional pieces of evidence and the mind’s necessity to make shapes out of matter. It is this that enables SINISTER to unsettle its audiences as it combines folklore, occultism and stalker-slasher to deliver a drama based in the relentless, unforgiving world of now.
Ethan Hawke stars as Ellison, a rather trashy true-crime writer who is desperate to believe that his fifteen minutes of fame and respect did not pass him by years ago. He has uprooted his wife and children to yet another new suburb in the hope that his next investigation will reignite his own enigma.
As he attempts to understand the underlying patterns in the murder mystery he is investigating (and sticking important-looking but obvious question-riddled post-it notes to his walls), he begins to notice tell tale signs of hidden information. He sees things not previously visible and his family experience disturbances that appear related to his absolute determination to further his career at any cost.
So is it scary? The more appropriate question is whether it is effective. This reviewer had to be scraped off the Empire Cinema’s ceiling, being particularly prone to jump scares and having bruised Britgeek’s arm from grabbing it in fright (and yes, I was the screamer). There are a number of frightening flashes. More objectively, however, the fear (rather than shock) comes from some superb direction and pacing from Scott Derrickson. Scenes capture the action in a balletic form perfectly akin to another world seen in silvery snatches so strangely beautiful and oddly believable that it is impossible to tear your eyes away. Alternatively, sequences in which Ellison uncovers the past are terrifying purely because of their auteurist realism. Derrickson and cinematographer Chris Norr have a manner of showing the human body in a way that makes you grieve for the person while also feeling quite sickened by a killer who twists the family tableau with such cruel humour. Indeed, the images (particularly a repeated section subverting nature and carefree, childish play), could have been ripped from a Bruegel painting, such are their power.
What is more, they are complimented by an absolutely superb soundtrack (original music by Christopher Young) that not only mediates the tension level perfectly, but also locates the characters in a sense of time, space and thought. We move from variant strains of folk music while peeping at a family’s most intimate moments, to the diegetic noises that stalk Ellison as he creeps listlessly in the darkness, to an odd singing that seems to come from the land itself. This film will make you understand how and why folk tales are passed on.
Of course, such scenes might still fail were it not for the quality of acting from Hawke. The former Dead Poet has lost none of his emotion and has gained in depth as the troubled, vain author. You can see the midnight oil, mixed with whisky and grappling with his family responsibilities, written in the angle of his peering eyes and in his gait. During the family scenes, similar praise can also be given to Juliet Rylance as Tracy, Ellison’s wife, who is beginning to doubt that her husband will do the right thing. It must be said, however, that a two-hander between the couple falls flat owing to her acting and possibly some slightly stilted dialogue that breaks the illusion for a short time.
The children steal some of the most delicate scenes. Michael Hall D’Addario gives an incredibly mature performance as Trevor, an intelligent but troubled boy who indicates the tension the family is under despite his surfer dude haircut. He provides one of the most terrifying visions and can move in a silken, luminous manner that most actors three times his age cannot achieve. It is an ability also held to a lesser degree by the other young actors who associate with the house from time to time. A good attempt is also made by Clare Foley as Trevor’s sister, Ashley, who can look convincingly frigid and will hopefully gain more nuance in her delivery as she grows older – hers was a difficult role and she has the command to improve her craft. The conclusive listing should go to James Ransone as the Deputy. He demonstrates that comedy played straight gains the most laughs and his part was a well-judged breather from the tension.
SINISTER is not the hokey hack story the title might suggest, but a finely crafted chiller that returns to the realism that makes the haunted house fable ring true. It also keeps its audience guessing until the end. When it finally reveals its secrets, it does so in line with how one might imagine a haunted mind to feel and it is genuinely upsetting while never resorting to gore. Indeed, it is reminiscent of the investigative sections of THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS and the highly competent LAKE MUNGO at different points. The ending leaves the impression of the story’s sinister song with its audience – it is creepy, dark and beautifully appropriate. Scott Derrickson should be proud.
Dr Karen Oughton
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