CATCH YOU SATOR
Review: RJ Bland
Religion and mental health are two subjects that occasionally collide on film. If you say that you hear the voice of God, it's quite acceptable. Indeed, hundreds of millions of people in the developed world would claim to have heard the voice of God, some on a regular basis. Even though we're becoming more and more secular, even most of those who are anti religion would say that anyone claiming to hear the voice of God was merely a victim of conditioning or willingly kidding themselves. However when someone says they hear the voice of a demon or the devil himself, it is met with a much greater degree of concern. In fact, if someone were to tell you that they regularly heard the voices of demons, there's every chance you would doubt their sanity. In the modern era, things like hearing voices and seeing things that aren't there have been associated with mental afflictions such as schizophrenia or dementia. Both conditions that several hundred years ago were often interpreted as being in league with the devil or being possessed. This blurring of the lines between mental illness and devil worship is a subject that is under sharp focus in Jordan Graham's debut feature Sator.
In the forests of Northern California, a broken family tries to make sense of the tragic (and rather mysterious) loss of a couple of its members. Nani, the matriarch of the family spends a decent amount of her time at her remote cabin home, autowriting. For the uninitiated this involves scrawling down words, sentences and images that are being communicated by something not of this world. In this case, the entity that Nani claims is communicating with her is called 'Sator'. Nani does have dementia, so it'd be easy to apportion her experiences to that however she has been in contact with this force for several decades – and what's more, her daughter was in communication with it too, before her untimely disappearance. Now, her grandson, staying at his dead grandfather's cabin deep in the woods, begins experiencing some rather disturbing visions that indicate that maybe 'Sator' isn't just a figment of his grandmother's (and mother's) imagination...
It's safe to say that Sator is something of a passion project for its creator Jordan Graham. We say creator because he was responsible for basically every element of the film-making process, from direction and sound design to the script and editing and production design. It's a film that took a period of around seven years to finish from it's inception and although it premiered at a couple of film festivals back in 2019, it's only just seen the light of day with regards to general audiences. And I think it's safe to say that it's a film that is going to strongly divide viewers.
Saying that, we're sitting on the fence on this one. Actually, that's not strictly true. We spent the first half of the film on one side of the fence and during the second, we were hopping back and forth over either side. There's a lot to admire and to like about Sator, but there is just as much that frustrates or confounds.
Let's start off with the good stuff; the film looks beautiful and is at times, mesmerising. The script is really quite sparse but Graham tells his story and builds the atmosphere through the strength of his visuals and the subtle (but hugely effective) use of sound. Much like Robert Eggers did in The Witch, Graham is able to make a bunch of trees feel intensely ominous and create tension through the cracking of a branch in the distance. Less is more and in the hands of someone that knows what they are doing, it can be hugely effective. Time and reality are elements that are played with too and whilst the result can be undeniably confusing, it also feels suitably heady and nightmarish. The way we are fed fragments from different timelines and different locations and timelines and in various formats is suitably discombobulating. The film also delivers some really unsettling moments too – and a couple of moments of quite shocking violence. It may be one of the slowest burning films you'll see this year but when it strikes, it strikes hot.
However there are a couple of things that prevent Sator from becoming quite as accomplished as it threatens to be at times. The first act of the film makes for rather challenging viewing, mainly because it's not very clear what exactly is going on. Graham's decision to mix documentary style scenes with flashbacks and the present day is an intriguing one but it also muddles things in the early stages. There's also a lot of mumbling too, which is especially frustrating when there's barely any dialogue anyway. Perhaps the film's biggest flaw is that we just don't care very much about our central character, Adam, because we just don't really get to know him in any real sense. Which makes his plight in the second half of the film less frightening. And even though the film clocks in at just under 90 minutes, it still feels a little too ponderous and stretched. Host proved that not every feature needs to be an hour and a half and this might have had a little more impact in a slightly more truncated form.
Sator finishes with a bit of a flourish and saves some of it's best stuff for the last ten minutes or so when things crank up a gear or two and there are some images in there that will be difficult to shake long after the credits roll. It's been described as a cross between The Witch and Relic and whilst it's not as impressive as either of those, it's still worthy of the comparison.