Desperate for another New York Times bestseller after his mega-successful, police-incriminating Kentucky Blood, and in search of morbid inspiration, true-crime novelist Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke, his trademark highfalutin’, neurotic superego on full display) moves his wife and two children into a ranch house where a gruesome family hanging recently took place. Suitably clothed in a Bennington College T-shirt and elbow-patched sweater, with glasses dangling around his neck, Ellison, the royalties from his one bit hit waning along with his family’s patience, finds it apt to keep the truth of their new, bargain-priced home a secret—only alluding to the fact that the murders occurred in the same town. A barrage of past and present exposition floods the film’s first act, and amid a conversation regarding the very recent murders that Ellison is researching, Ellison’s wife, Tracy (stage actress Juliet Rylance), shouts, “I don’t want to hear why we’re here again from anybody,” and it’s hard to disagree.
After the unpacking of boxes, as well as blatant familial and professional baggage, Ellison wanders up to the attic and discovers a single metal crate containing Super 8 reels and a projector. Locked in his office, Ellison fires up the machine and allows the fascinatingly gruesome films to wash over him, both excited by the secret evidence for his nascent novel and disturbed by the imagery (in the process, downing tumblers of whiskey). These films are worthy of obsession as director Scott Derrickson employs within them the now-typical language of jump cuts and static soundscapes to genuinely chilling effect.
But Sinister, which often feeds off clever ways to trail the viewers’ eye to a startling moment of sudden dread, is unable to take advantage of its adept use of found footage in relation to the anemic moral dilemma Derrickson tries to derive depth from—or from the haunted house-style booby traps Ellison occasionally experiences. Even the family dynamic is boilerplate horror: The wife is capital-L loyal, the son is prone to somnambulistic night terrors, and the daughter is a precocious Picasso. With Ellison’s decision to keep the videos from the authorities, despite multiple bumps in the night as a consequence of his film-viewing, Derrickson attempts to capture a flimsy Capote-esque quandary of a writer putting himself and others in danger in order to claim fame (at one point, Ellison even exclaims that the story he’s following could be his In Cold Blood).
Taking a cue from the Wally Pfister Academy of Gloomy Cinematography, Sinister is a film about shadows: the resonance of past tragedies, the reflection on a may-be-bygone career, even the way Ellison never flips on a light switch when anxiously following the strange noises in his house at night. Ellison’s fascination with—and thorough usage and manipulation of—celluloid to solve a crime recalls Antonioni’s Blowup and De Palma’s Blow Out, but Derrickson is unable to conjure an aura that isn’t as transparent and weightless as a ghost. The film apprehends the significance of indelible imagery, and yet leads to a conclusion of uninspired images that undermine the suggestive, sublime visuals seen in the found footage. Due to the powerful light of acutely gruesome and evocative images from the flickering Super 8 projector, the tension-flattening house screeches, and even creakier themes, remain overshadowed.