In Sator, the new release from 1091 Pictures, writer/director Jordan Graham tells a story with very personal connections, as he explains it “delves into my family’s dark history with mental illness surrounding a supernatural entity, and uses home video footage to create an interwoven piece between documentary and fiction.” But while it’s a technically brilliant film that leverages gorgeous cinematography and harshly beautiful environments to induce a sense of dread, it lacks the emotional narrative elements to create true investment in its characters.
The film follows Adam (Gabriel Nicholson), a troubled young man who has isolated himself in a remote cabin in the woods after the mysterious death of his grandfather. His family has been deteriorating for some time, as his Nani (June Peterson) in particular seems to hear voices and she keeps bringing up the name Sator. The more Adam continues to dig, the more he realizes that Sator’s sinister presence is not only a threat to his Nani, but also to his siblings, and particularly to him.
Graham, who also served as cinematographer on the film, clearly has a talent for visually stimulating shots, beginning with his location selection. Adam spends the majority of the film in a rustic cabin deep in the woods, most of which was shot on location in Yosemite National Park. Graham uses a variety of climates to organically show a significant passage of time while also allowing for a varied mixture of color palettes.
When we first meet Adam, for example, it appears to be springtime, with Graham taking beats to show not only wide shots of the lush, green forest but also taking things down to a smaller level with quick cuts to bright, yellow-green slugs that almost pop off the screen. By the third act, however, winter has firmly set in, and it looks as though Adam could be swallowed up by the sea of white that pervades the snow-covered mountains around him.
Also impressive are the frightful images that Graham uses to punctuate the sinister ambiance he creates. There’s a sense of mystery permeating everything you see on screen, starting with opening credits interspersed with shots of a woman floating with her back arched over an immolating body. We know bad things are happening, but we don’t know exactly how or why as Graham gives us glimpses of Sator’s mythology in morsels and glimpses.
Unfortunately, there’s not enough emotional meat to the story to make the technically impressive elements truly land. By the time we meet the family, they’ve already been fractured by their grandfather’s death. Conversations are terse, and I expect that Graham means to fill the empty space with the ominous nature about what’s not being said. These relationships are strained by who or what has corrupted the family, so I understand that we’re supposed to read between the lines to a certain degree.
But the script seems so zeroed in on Sator as the driving force of the narrative that we don’t get any beats to know the characters beyond their connection to it. Adam is so immersed in his obsession that he doesn’t say more than three or four words the entire movie. Almost all of Nani’s lines are in reference to the things Sator says to her in her head. And Adam’s brother Pete (Michael Daniel) is just sort of the catalyst to convey these character beats, interacting with both Adam and Nani in a way that allows them to react without having much of his own agency or narrative arc.
Without giving us some sense for what makes these characters tick, something gets lost in the horror and the tragedy of the film. A story that seems like it should be very personal comes across as cold and detached. That’s not to say that we need scenes of everyone hugging and singing campfire songs together in order to be drawn into their story, but even in conflict we should be able to get some glimpse of who these characters are and why we should care about them. Sator never quite delivers on that, which holds it back from being something truly memorable.