Peter A. Dowling’s hopeless run-of-the-mill and aimlessly directed Sacrifice is a woman-in-peril drama that stakes its bid for scares on folkloric tales about spooky rocks and references to the “Tollund Man,” a fourth-century Scandinavian man’s corpse that wasn’t found until the mid-20th century in Denmark. The story follows Dr. Tora Hamilton (Radha Mitchell), an American physician whose sudden miscarriage prompts her to move with her husband, Duncan (Rupert Graves), to the Shetland Islands, located 100 miles off the coast of Scotland. Hoping to start anew and perhaps adopt a child, Tora is instead quickly mixed up in a murder case involving a young woman who’s been dismembered and carved up with ritualistic symbols.
The opening minutes are promising for their directorial flair. After a pithy prologue, Tora is catapulted to the Shetland Islands, and in one scene, Dowling winks at genre constraints by playing with body-horror tropes. When Tora claims a patient is losing blood, her nurse gawks and stutters, “Dr. Hamilton…it’s not her, it’s…you!” The line prompts a title card saying “3 months later,” and the film subsequently finds Tora standing with her hubby discussing rock carvings and their own speech patterns. When Tora claims she doesn’t have an accent, Duncan, a Scotsman, says, “No accent? Spoken like a true American.” These flashes of exposition initially give the narrative a sense of purpose. There are also proficient edits, as when the couple visits Duncan’s parents and a shot of Duncan and Tora’s car pulling up to the house is overlaid with a soundtrack of the foursome greeting one another. The quick-witted pacing condenses narrative space and sufficiently establishes Tora’s anxieties about her inability to have a child without overselling the matter.
Unfortunately, these scenes constitute only the first 10 minutes of Sacrifice, after which the film settles into a more conventional rhythm. Seeking to uncover the secrets behind a recently found body, Tora bounces from one location to the next, meeting with experts on this or that matter. These scenes have a consistent structure, with Tora and the expert walking and talking around one of the island’s picturesque locales, each meeting adding another meaningless revelation to the film’s stockpile of backstory.
Moreover, the plot’s mysteries, which involve uncovered Web pages detailing the island’s folkloric creatures, like the “kunal trow,” don’t even follow through on their promise of third-act monster attacks. Instead, the tease of a subsequent reveal turns out to be mere tiptoeing around the film’s utter lack of intrigue. Halfway through the film, Tora states: “There’s something weird going on with this island,” a comment Dowling desperately hopes audience members buy into. But the proceeding events to Tora’s claim are anything but weird. In fact, Sacrifice’s very design—a car chase, narrow escapes through small passageways, and a guess-who culprit that necessitates no guessing—turns out to be a whimpered bark followed by a toothless bite.