Sator is about a family afflicted, by mental illness, dementia, and/or a supernatural being (by the name of Sator). With sparse dialogue and lush landscapes, Sator does not tell a story as much as it gives us a glimpse into writer/director Jordan Graham’s personal experiences. Graham wrote, directed, produced, and did just about everything else in his debut feature film, and it is an accomplishment.
I should start this out by saying that I really wanted to like this film. The trailer sold me. I love movies like The Witch, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, and others that are typically billed as “slow burns”. The disjointed nature of Sator, and lack of narrative or cohesive plot, does not work well in the film. The mood in Sator is lacking. What should be bleak and tense instead feels like an absence.
Is a film automatically considered to be “atmospheric” just because it’s a slow burn, with very little dialogue, that takes place in a forest? While there are certainly atmospheric shots in the film, it lacks any sense of dread or suspense. The film’s intro, in a tight 4:3 aspect ratio, feels sinister as we listen to a woman talk about Sator. After this though, the film is quiet — too quiet. The little dialogue there is, particularly in the beginning of the film, is hard to make out.
Our main character, Adam, looks unwell as he goes to a solitary cabin in the woods. At first, we think he may just be there to hunt deer, but we realize that there’s more to the story. As we learn about his family’s experiences with Sator, we realize that he, too, may be afflicted – and this may be why he’s alone in the cabin.
What works for Sator is the cinematography. Graham uses black and white home-video footage, along with black and white film in 4:3 aspect ratio to show flashbacks in between the widescreen color digital film of the main storyline. Some of the shots of the sky, forest, and landscape are beautiful.
There are a lot of scenes in Sator that, individually, are excellent. Scenes of Adam’s brother, Peter, talking to their grandmother, Nani, about her experience with Sator and with her memory loss are captivating. She describes how Sator works within her and “teaches her to be human”. While it could seem like something scary, she seems happy to have Sator with her. These conversations are pieced together with footage of Graham’s own family, which makes for a simultaneously intriguing and heart breaking viewing.
What you think of Sator might entirely depend on how affective use of the supernatural in horror films is for you – as well as jump scares. Fortunately, there aren’t too many jump scares in this movie, but they don’t always have the intended effect.
The last ten minutes of the film give us a shocking climax which is made all the more effective by how little action proceeds it. While it can be deduced that the violent outcome is the inevitable result of Adam’s family neglecting him, leaving him isolated in the woods, it’s not entirely clear. A lot of Sator is unclear, and that’s fine – but I think when portraying the mentally ill as violent, a little more sensitivity and clarity is required (for a film that does this well, see The Swerve).
Sator might leave you with more questions than answers, and if you’re going to watch this film, I recommend doing so with subtitles on. If you enjoy supernatural horror, you might enjoy this film. What Sator brings us an interesting use of medium, but not the best story-telling; if that’s what you’re looking for (a cohesive horror film about mental illness and/or the supernatural) watch Hereditary or The Ritual. While the pacing is slow and the plot thin, Sator is never boring, and I found it both bland and interesting at the same time – it’s worth watching if you’re looking for something unique.
Sator will be available to purchase or rent February 9
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