Directed by: Scott Derrickson.
Written by: Scott Derrickson & C. Robert Cargill.
Starring: Ethan Hawke (Ellison Oswalt), Juliet Rylance (Tracy), Fred Dalton Thompson (Sheriff), James Ransone (Deputy), Michael Hall D'Addario (Trevor), Clare Foley (Ashley), Vincent D'Onofrio (Professor Jonas).
Sinister is the type of horror that slowly gets under your skin and then stays there for days on end. It is a disturbing horror movie right from its opening frames – grainy, Super 8 footage of four bodies hanging from a tree – an image we will see in various forms repeatedly throughout the movie. Like many horror films before it, Sinister wants to turn the audience into voyeurs, right alongside its main character – so the film can implicate us at the same time. The main character this time is Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) – who makes one mistake after another during the course of the film, and yet almost all of them make sense given the information he has available to him at the time. That is a horrible person, who dooms himself from the start is obvious – but that he is a relatable horrible person is what makes the performance, and the movie, work as well as it does.
Ellison is a true crime writer, who had a hit 10 years ago, and has fallen on hard times since (one of his books, where he came up with a theory that turned out to be wrong, has somehow gotten people to blame him for some deaths, which makes no sense, but be cool, just roll with). He has decided to move – with his wife and two young kids – into the house where those four hanging people lived before their deaths (that tree is still in the backyard) – in the hopes of writing his new book, and maybe even finding clues to the location of the daughter who has been missing. He doesn’t tell his wife this is the murder house (he does tell her, when she asks that no, they did not move two houses away from a murder house, which isn’t a lie), and although that too strains credibility, again, just role with it. The Sheriff (Fred Dalton Thompson) doesn’t want Ellison there – which makes sense – but he doesn’t do much but act menacing. His deputy is played by James Ransone – and he’s pretty much hilarious in a way that somehow doesn’t detract from the horror as he wants to help Ellison, who he is a fan of. Vincent D’Onofrio shows up on Skype to help setup the ending – which doesn’t need that, but whatever, horror movies always feel the need to explain themselves.
But most of the movie is in fact just Hawke’s Ellison by himself. He stumbles across a box of home movies, and a projector of course, and watches them again and again and again – eventually getting them on his laptop so he can slow things down and discover more details. He seems to do most of this at nighttime, with all the lights off, in the attic of the old house – because really, that’s the most logical thing to do, and it in no way has anything to do with director Scott Derrickson just wanting to set the atmosphere. Hawke is convincing in this role – a seemingly normal, soft spoken guy, who is really a raging egomaniac and possibly a drunk to boot. Stephen King has always said one of his problem with Kubrick’s The Shining is that Jack Nicholson is so obviously crazy that it isn’t shocking when he turns. One of the things that works best about Sinister is how Hawke is convincing as a normal guy, before he slowly starts to reveal the depths he is willing to stoop to stroke his own ego. He has convinced himself he “needs” this book – but he doesn’t. He just wants it really bad.
The end of the movie is inevitable – it’s set up fairly early on, and proceeds there with little detours. We know what’s happening long before Hawke does. But while you could complain about that – or with some of the leaps in logic the movie takes – I’m not going to. Why? Basically because the movie works as it’s playing. While it may be easy to poke holes in the film afterwards, as it plays the film works – and does so with atmosphere, and not gore. It is an unsettling film that haunts your thoughts long after it’s over.