Sator review – atmospheric is an understatement The woods are lovely, dark and deep

February 1, 2021
Alix Turner 0
Film Reviews
4

Summary

Slow and mysterious rural/domestic/folk horror from a new auteur to watch out for. Mesmerising stuff, with painstaking production and a chilling atmosphere.

4

Summary

Slow and mysterious rural/domestic/folk horror from a new auteur to watch out for. Mesmerising stuff, with painstaking production and a chilling atmosphere.

I wasn’t sure if I was going to watch Sator, let alone write about it, as several other priorities have been battling for my attention. By the time I was barely ten minutes in, I knew it merited an article, but it’s not an easy one to write: how do I give the right level of praise to a film that’s actually not easy to sit through?

Sator is about a small somewhat disjointed family: siblings Pete (Michael Daniel), Adam (Gabriel Nicholson) and Deborah (Aurora Lowe), and their Noni (June Peterson). Their grandfather has died some years ago, their mother has more recently disappeared and little mention is made of their father. There are concerns about Adam’s mental health since he’s gone to live deep in the woods by himself, especially as Mother’s disappearance may have been triggered by similar issues, and now Noni is disappearing too, into dementia. She talks about a spirit called Sator who is with her often and gives her messages and seems to recall this “guardian” better than her own family. Gradually, Adam has strange experiences and wonders whether he is losing it too, or whether Sator is real.

These could all be real people: the acting is minimal, but instead, it feels like we are watching people being themselves, which adds to the authenticity. I wanted to pick out the one person whose acting did seem truly remarkable, Peterson, who played the grandmother; until I got to the closing credits where she is listed as playing Herself. Writer/director Jordan Graham did indeed take a very bold step of combining his own family and history with fiction, which makes the whole thing doubly unsettling and at the same time believable.

Atmosphere is everything in Sator. The sound design – whether whispering, an eerie hum, or simple bird song – enhances the uneasy solitude of Adam’s lifestyle and all adds up to one nerve-shredding ninety minutes. The cinematography (again, by Graham) is striking, especially the sharp images of trees and the morning sky. You can easily imagine losing touch with reality, as you lose touch with the wider world. The production of the film in many respects is a marvel; and although several aspects of the content call to mind other films (such as Hereditary, The Witch, and Session 9), the way it is presented is both original and eye-catching. Scenes alternate from widescreen to 4:3, color to black and white, present to past; and that flicking between the two is almost like you’re watching both Adam’s family and his memories, as he relates his current experiences with things his Noni has talked about.

As I warned at the start, though, Sator is not easy to sit through. “Slow-burn” is frankly an understatement; and combined with the hypnotic sounds, repeat views of forest and deer, and old tape-recorded almost-mumblings, a good deal of Sator is like a morbid meditation. It was shamefully easy to drift away or look without listening, and if you do that you might need to watch the film again to put all the pieces together. It is worth giving it the attention it requires, though: patience will be rewarded, not only with shock and awe but with a new mythology.

Sator is the third film I’ve covered in recent months that was largely the work of a single person, and my experience with the first of those made me wary. The second was a showcase of skills developed during its making; and now this film introduced me to the talents of Jordan Graham, finely honed and looking like he could achieve anything he damn well wants with this medium.

Sator will available on Digital Download (iTunes) from 15 February and DVD from 22 February.

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