Ethan Hawke is really going to wish he stayed with Julie Delpy. It could’ve been BEFORE SINISTER.
Directed by: Scott Derrickson
Stars: Ethan Hawke, Juliet Rylance, and James Ransone
MPAA Rating: R
Who doesn’t enjoy a good mystery? Whether it’s reading about unexplained phenomena or an unsolved murder, there is something compelling about a problem without an apparent solution. Or, at least, a solution everyone can agree upon. This is the type of situation that the hero of SINISTER, the new horror film opening today, purposefully seeks out. But what happens when the horrors that await are not simply the horrors of the past, but the horrors of what may come?
SINISTER introduces us to Ellison, a true crime writer who has moved his family to a new town so that he may investigate the murders of four people for his next book. During the unpacking process, Ellison spots a derelict box containing Super 8 home movies in the attic. Upon viewing them, he discovers that they contain footage of the heinous crime he is planning to write about as well as footage of other crimes that are similar in nature. Diving head-first into this mystery could lead to some much-needed success for the writer. However, it could also unleash a terror unto his family that cannot be stopped.
The first half of SINISTER is terrific. The characters and the plot are set up very well. The family dynamic between the writer, his wife, and their two kids is very believable and engaging. The mystery of the footage that is the core of the film is absolutely chilling and disturbing, yet completely fascinating and absorbing all the same. The filmmakers are extremely adept at building tension and suspense throughout this section of the movie. There’s an air of menace permeating those scenes that can be tangible at times.
Unfortunately, at about the halfway mark, the film starts to lose much of it’s steam. The conflict that arises between the writer and his wife becomes redundant after you’ve seen the same argument a few times. Screentime is dedicated to some business involving their son, but it doesn’t impact the plot nor does it serve any real purpose. The supernatural elements start to kick in, and they aren’t as interesting as what is insinuated in the previous scenes. Certain plot revelations towards the end are very predictable. The final stretch, the climax, and the ending are all interesting in concept, but the execution is poorly handled and surprisingly hollow. Catharsis is needed at the end of any movie, no matter if the ending in question is upbeat or downbeat in tone or content. SINISTER is missing this crucial ingredient.
This is a shame because the work from the cast is top-notch. Hats off to Ethan Hawke for delivering a terrific, sincere performance. He must balance the allure of the mystery against the fear of what he is uncovering, and the desire for acclaim and wealth against the safety of his family. He manages the fluctuations of this character in a credible, admirable manner. The rest of the cast is equally up to the task, especially the actors making up his family. Even cliché characters, such as the ornery sheriff who instantly dislikes the hero, come across better in this film than in most other horror movies.
The writing and directing are equally good and bad. Both parties can be commended for the superlative work in the first half, but they are both to blame for the shortcomings of the latter half. All of the special, visual, and make-up effects in the film are remarkable. There’s no gore, but there are copious amounts of blood, which is used sparingly and effectively. Each piece of the grisly Super 8 footage created and degraded for the film is a wonder to look at, especially in the more horrific portions. The music score can be unique at times, but it is annoying during most of the tense or scary moments.
SINISTER is a tough film to review. On the one hand, impressive performances and an intriguing plot help the film stand out from the rest of the crowd. On the other hand, a tiresome and unsatisfying second half keep the film from truly leaving it’s mark. The film never lives up to it’s potential, sadly making it a missed opportunity instead of a welcome new addition to the horror genre.
SINISTER is now playing in theatres nationwide. It ultimately cannot be recommended by this critic.
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