Sinister (review)

Sinister yellow light Ethan Hawke

I’m “biast” (pro): nothing

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

You know all those classic spook flicks about nice middle-class families that don’t know they just moved into the lovely suburban plot where the swimming pool was built on an old Indian burial ground or where the psychotic babysitter killed the kids 20 years ago, and then like 82 minutes into the film there’s the “If only we’d known!” scene and recriminations toward the real-estate agent and the mad rush to get out?

LOL! So your father’s horror movie. Sinister skips right past that by giving us true-crime writer Ellison Oswalt, who knowingly moves his wife and little ’uns into the very same house where four family members were hanged — hanged, I tell you! — from a big tree in the yard, at the same time the smallest member, a cute little girl, disappeared. And… horror movie: Go!

Ellison’s wife, Tracy (Juliet Rylance), apparently knows her husband well enough not to be surprised by his mendacity when she inevitably discovers the truth, but it seems she cherishes her willful ignorance up until that point. Which, you know, always makes for a sympathetic character. But wait! It gets better. The very day the Oswalts — also including 11ish Trevor (Michael Hall D’Addario) and adorable tyke Ashley (Clare Foley) — move in, Ellison discovers, in the attic that he has photographic crime-scene proof was previously empty, suddenly contains a box full of 8mm films, dating from 1966 to at least 1998, depicting the variously ghastly murders of a series of families, including the hanged family. Because that happens.

There appears to be three possible rational explanations for the appearance of the films: the killer is stalking the Oswalts and taunting Ellison; Ellison is himself the killer and is going through some sort of breakdown during which he’s finally admitting his crimes to himself; the films are all in Ellison’s head. The first possibility appears not unlikely: many people knew Famous Author Ellison Oswalt was coming to town, including the sheriff (Fred Dalton Thompson: Secretariat), who doesn’t much care for how the writer has depicted inept cops in the past and who invites the Oswalts to turn right around and leave town. But Ellison is shockingly unconcerned by the plain fact that the murderer has access to his new home and his vulnerable family… which might have, in a lesser film, been a bigger problem than it is.

For what there is to recommend Sinister is what we can convince ourselves, for a while, is an exploration of that third possibility, made so very enticing by Ethan Hawke’s (The Woman in the Fifth, Daybreakers) crankily intriguing performance as Ellison. For, you see, Ellison does indeed appear to be getting overwhelmed by his work, which at this moment involves writing a book about the crime of the hanged family and the missing little daughter. This isn’t just a crime that now hits quite literally close to home — Ellison is also desperate to match his earlier bestselling success, which has been eluding him again for many years. It’s just the sort of artistic pressure-cooker situation that could well send the sort of intelligent, imaginative man Ellison is over the edge. And so for a good enough while, Sinister is a fascinating character study of creative meltdown.

Alas, we also know, from fairly early on, that such a humanistic story is not Sinister’s concern. Director and screenwriter Scott Derrickson (The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Exorcism of Emily Rose), with newbie cowriter C. Robert Cargill, are aimed squarely at the traditional horror movie crowd. The psychological vagaries of real people who commit terrible crimes and real people who investigate them are not in the cards here, not when the unaccountable supernatural can be hauled in, for whom no explanation or motive is required but Eeeeeviiiiiiil! In a slasher flick with no aspirations to emotional human authenticity, it’s barely worth complaining about the cheap out of invoking demons and angry spirits and other such nonsense. In a film like this one, which teases us with more profound prospects for delving into obsession and frailty and down-to-earth authentic malevolence, it’s a disappointment.

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.
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