Scott Derrickson’s “Sinister” had the make up to be just another lame Hollywood horror entry. It stars Ethan Hawke, who as an actor, I really never cared for much up until just this year having recently grown quite fond of the films of Richard Linklater. It was supposedly about a “supernatural writer” (see countless others like 2004’s “Secret Window” or 2007’s “1408” to name a couple) who awakens dark spirits. In essence the pedigree to be just another standard, run-of-the-mill American horror flick. Then, after hearing some positive feedback about it from some friends of mine I decided to give it a whirl. And of all the horror films that I’m going to make mention of over the next week – this is the one that took me by surprise the most.
To me what’s so impressive about “Sinister” are essentially two major elements that were reaffirmed the second time around was 1) the lighting and 2) the use of score. I can honestly say I’ve never seen a film lit quite like this one. The entire film is essentially filmed indoors. And while although if you look closely you can see that certain segments are clearly shot during the day, the creators always keep the blindfolds down smoldering it in darkness. So dark that at many points all there seems to be is one hovering lighting rig looking down. Which can be disorienting because most of the time all you can see is whatever’s in focus. This could be off putting to some. But to me I thought it was completely effective because it constantly had me wondering and asking myself what could possibly be lurking in the shadows (and there are quite a few scares mind you). Second, the score by composer Andrea Nebal is pitch perfect. The way in which it is used, especially during the scenes of panic, tension, or dread, is really effective in rattling the viewer. In fact, the score is so good that I can only think of 2 others that are comparable in recent memory. One of which is my #1 film that is going to complete this list so I don’t dare spoil it. The second being Mica Levi’s remarkable score from this year’s “Under The Skin”. All three scores that really act as second characters in the film and without them the end result in each one of the films wouldn’t be half as great. Now I know both of these 2 aspects I highlighted are purely cinematic ones, and would be a hard sell for someone not interested in such areas of film and I completely understand that. However, I’m not trying to shy away from how truly terrifying this movie is. It’s the type of movie that you will see images on screen that will be forever embedded in your brain that even if you try to forgot you will never be able to “un see”. Which to me is one criteria of horror that I love if done right and isn’t cheap or exploitative. And in the case of this film, not only does it right but does it with an added cherry on top.
A home run for Richard Linklater, and one in which feels almost like a culmination piece within his body of work. Which makes sense considering the movie was shot over the span of 12 years. So like with any artist, Linklater most likely changed a lot himself as a director over that period of that time. Adding to the authenticity of the film. This is dense and thought provoking stuff. Watching this film I felt like I was watching myself as a boy “growing up” again, much like I did with ‘The Tree of Life’, which I also found myself making a lot of comparisons to. Except, instead of Terrence Malick’s loose, stream-of-consciousness narrative, Linklater takes a much different approach and shoots it in a linear fashion like a documentary in real time. So it almost feels as if you’re right there watching this young boy’s (played remarkably by Ellar Coltrane) life unfold before your eyes. One key aspect that I really liked about the film is that even though Linklater filmed it for a few weeks every summer over the course of 12 years, while watching it, it felt very seamless in the way time passed by. Not episodic which I was thankful for because I thought had it of been edited that way it would have detracted from the film. Another aspect I liked was that within every frame, for its entire 2 hour and 45 minute run time, there was something very intentional being portrayed. So it almost demanded your attention, asking you to do interpretive work constantly throughout, as almost every shot or scene made you think (and in a lot of cases feel) deeply. Lastly, I thought it did an exceptional job in terms of depicting all of the things we go through in adolescence. How we view the world and the changes that are constantly happening all around us, as we’re being pulled this way or that by different forces and having to choose between parents and their belief and value systems (with Ethan Hawke clearly being the representative for exploring this theme), all the while trying to develop your own sense of identity and individuality.
Featuring some beautiful cinematography shot all over Texas, a solid musical soundtrack (one that Linklater uses brilliantly to tip off the viewer as to what time period they’re in), and a standout performance by Patricia Arquette, who may receive some recognition come awards season for her strong work here (as well as Coltrane). This is almost guaranteed to garner a Best Picture nomination as well as a nod in the directing category for Linklater. Already up there vying with ‘Under The Skin’ for my favorite film of 2014 as well as Linklater’s best work behind the “Before” Trilogy films. This is one that comes with my highest stamp of approval. And as an added disclaimer, I can’t emphasize enough for you to make every effort to see it while it’s in theaters, as at home (like with most films) I can only imagine it being a much different experience.