Review: Ethan Hawke takes a horrifying ride in SXSW secret screening of 'Sinister'
I'm starting to get a little confused about which festival I'm attending, because while everything I see in Austin this week says "SXSW," it's got a distinctly "Fantastic Fest" vibe going on.
I have a feeling part of that's just been the choices I made about what to see and when. I've been at most of the midnights, and so far, my days have been occupied largely with things other than movies, like yesterday's live-chat with Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard or the panel I moderated for "Holliston," a crazy new sitcom for FEARnet starring Joe Lynch and Adam Green.
But it seems significant that "The Cabin In The Woods" was the opening night movie, and it seems right that the Secret Screening turned out to be Scott Derrickson's new film "Sinister," starring Ethan Hawke and not set for release until later this year. The film has local ties in the form of co-screenwriter C. Robert Cargill who worked at Ain't It Cool with me as "Massawyrm," and it almost felt like a cast and crew screening when the film played at midnight on Saturday, even with technical delays that had the film starting a full hour late.
"Sinister" could more accurately be described as a "found footage" movie than something like the recent "Project X" or "Chronicle," since those films don't even try to explain who "found" the footage you're watching. Those are mockumentaries, a better catch-all term for this new glut of first-person movies. And while this film does deal with a character who discovers a box of Super-8 movies that may have something to do with a series of gruesome murders that he's investigating, there is nothing about the film, stylistically, that would group it with this recent spate of similar films.
Derrickson, who directed "The Exorcism Of Emily Rose" and the remake of "The Day The Earth Stood Still," has made a controlled and sophisticated slow-burn horror film here, one that introduces the sort of movie monster that could easily become a fan favorite and drive an ongoing series. Ethan Hawke plays a true-crime writer who is chasing the one hit he had early in his career, and desperation drives him to do something that seems morally reprehensible. He moves his family into the house where another family was murdered, not telling them that they are occupying the actual crime scene. On the night he moves in, he finds a box full of films, and when he begins watching them, it becomes clear that not only did the killer record the crime that took place in the house, but that he has been documenting similar crimes since at least the 1960s. Why the films were left for Ellison (Hawke) to discover and what someone hoped to accomplish by leaving them is the central mystery of the movie, one that it unravels deliberately and with a smart sense of escalation.
I have a personal issue with movies about writers because it is such an internal, personal process, and it doesn't really translate into external drama. Hawke does a nice job here as a guy whose own curiosity drags him further into what is obviously some sort of supernatural trap, and while there's a little bit of self-indulgence to the "Will I ever have another hit?" angst that drives him in the film, it's thankfully ladled on with a light touch. There's a great sense of rhythm to the way the film works, to the small compromises that Ellison makes as he keeps getting dragged further into this moral cesspool, and by the time he knows for sure that he needs to cut his investigation short, it may well be too late.
Juliet Rylance does solid work as his wife, and Clare Foley makes a solid impression as his daughter, but this really does feel like a one-man show. Vincent D'Onofrio has a few quick scenes, Fred Dalton Thompson sort of book-ends things, and there are certainly actors in the Super-8 films he's watching, but Hawke is the one everything hangs on. Special mention must be made of the cinematography by Chris Norr and the editing by Frederic Thoraval. Their work gives the film a sleek, unnerving quality that is well-augmented by Christopher Young's driving, industrial score. And once the film introduces Mr. Boogie, whose real nature is a clever explanation and back-story, it really starts to pick up steam. It's a relatively brief film, and there's no real fat on it. I think it may be a little too subtle for some horror fans, especially if they want some real red meat, but I think it's effective and spare and smartly built. I hope Summit has a hit with it, if for no other reason than it seems so determined to not simply ape the last horror hit, instead establishing its own creepy, lingering voice.
"Sinister" arrives in theaters in the US on October 5, 2012.