Sinister shows star Ethan Hawke looking at movies, talking to computer screens, reading papers, on the phone, examining photos, and rifling through books… A lot.
I don't mind the "looking up stuff in the library" obligatory research scenes in mystery movies as much as most people do, but I have got say: Sinister really tested my endurance. So much of it consisted of true crime author Ellison (Hawke) trying to unravel an unspeakable riddle in the most passive ways cinematically possible. What's more, we the audience are so far ahead of him that the fact he's supposed to be an intelligent character who's built an entire career as an inquisitive and proactive wrong-righting author becomes pretty hard to swallow. (Fortunately good dialogue is bestowed, keeping him interesting and likable enough in spite of his denseness.)
For me, the weaknesses in the screenplay are too egregious to forgive. (This is not to say they are unforgivable in general — had the film been directed and acted in a less-serious manner, then the story would have been more in line with the proceedings.)
Having said that, Sinister is more good than bad. It's certainly Scott Derrickson's best film to date. The young director made a strong debut with The Exorcism of Emily Rose, then got hit with the sophomore slump in a no-win situation with the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still starring Keanu Reeves. He took his time bringing Sinister to the screen, and his careful approach shows. Mixing a murder mystery with the popular found footage conceit, plus some family drama and drunken dynamics (if there's ever a drinking game based on Ellison's whiskey-belts, audiences everywhere will be automatically enrolled in AA), Sinister pulls no punches in the horror department.
The offense which draws Ellison, his wife, and two young children to occupy a certain house that dripped blood involves the mysterious ritualistic murder of the previous tenants. Ellison is the kind of writer who takes his research very much to heart: This is not the first time he's moved in order to be closer to the subject. In this case, the slain family was hung from a tree in their own backyard. Not only is the perpetrator of the crime at large but the youngest sibling, who disappeared in the melee, is still missing. Shortly after moving in, Ellison happens upon a box of Super 8 films up in the attic and thinking nothing of this fortuitous find (too easy, Ellison!), starts to watch them. And watch, and watch, and watch. I understand Sinister is a found-footage hybrid film, but watching him watch gets wearisome after awhile.
The story pretty much centers on Ellison, but Vincent D'Onofrio is a welcome respite in two scenes. However, they are on a computer screen. Yep: the only let up from Ellison looking at Super 8 movies projected on a wall is him Skyping. Alright… I am exaggerating a bit, but only because it felt that way after awhile. There are some interactive, human to human, face to face scenes with the local hick police officers (who are not fans of Ellison's big-city / crime-solving / high-handed / famous-author ways). The actors cast in these roles — Fred Dalton Thompson as the sheriff, and James Ransone as Deputy So And So — are superlative scene-stealers, bringing humor and pathos to otherwise stock characters.
Towards the end, our murder mystery segues into a supernatural thriller, complete with ghosts, possessed children, and a skulking boogeyman. This part didn't work for me either, but again: the movie's well made, finely acted, and overall serviceable.
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Reviewed by Staci Layne Wilson