Sinister is a film in which the viewer is expected to root for a man whose personal dreams trump his entire family’s sense of safety in their own home – which is fucked up and frustrating and detracts from a film with some incredibly freaky moments.
Here’s the story in a nutshell: True crime writer Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) hasn’t published a hit in a decade, so he has the genius idea to move with his wife, son, and daughter into a house where the previous occupants were hanged from a tree in the backyard. What better way to reclaim his true crime fame and fortune? And the house was so cheap! Murder houses are the best!
He finds a projector and a series of seriously intense and utterly horrifying snuff films in the attic and is like, SWEET! STATUS UPGRADE HERE I COME! Increasingly terrifying things begin to happen in the house and to its occupants, but so what if Ellison is subjecting his family to a living nightmare? After he publishes his book they’ll all be living the dream! HIS dream!
Perhaps you’ve seen the film in its entirety and are thinking, “But what about the ending?! Ellison is punished for his actions! Therefore the moral of the story is that it is wrong to force your family to move into a murder house and to lie to your wife about it and to stay there even when super ominous shit goes down repeatedly and your family hates it there – the film doesn’t endorse his behavior!”
To which I’ll reply: Sure, the film doesn’t endorse his behavior, but it does ask us to like Ellison Oswalt, to sympathize with his struggles, and to respect his decisions. Sure, he gets punished – along with his ENTIRE FAMILY who are ALL COMPLETELY INNOCENT – but the film doesn’t ask us to want him to be punished. We’re supposed to root for Ellison.
Sinister writer C. Robert Cargill and Sinister director and writer Scott Derrickson were both conscious of the character’s inherently unlikable nature when creating the film, and in interviews they explain that Ethan Hawke was cast specifically because of his charisma and likability:
How we ended up with Ethan was that Scott and I knew we had written a relatively unlikable protagonist and needed an actor who could win the audience over with pure charisma. Not a lot of actors can do that. Ethan was at the top of a short list
After I wrote the script, I loved it and I was very excited about it. But then I kind of had a panic attack and I thought “this guy is so unlikable, he’s so flawed, is the audience going to turn on this character and just not like this movie because they don’t like Ellison Oswalt? I really racked my brain trying to think of an actor who the audience wouldn’t turn on and would find consistently interesting even though he was making bad decisions from the beginning. It really came down to Ethan. I thought Ethan was the right guy for the movie above anybody else.
The film’s creators strive to justify Ellison’s stupid decisions in several different ways throughout the film. Here are all the reasons we are given as to why Ellison makes the incomprehensible decision to move his unwitting family into a murder house, and why he doesn’t move out immediately when things get weird, in roughly the order we’re given them:
– Ellison is all about justice; he is like the Superman of literary dudes.
When Ellison’s wife, Tracy (Juliet Rylance), expresses her frustration with the many ways his true crime research negatively impacts their children’s lives, he responds with:
“Bad things happen to good people and they still need to have their story told. They deserve that much.”
This is classic Man Pain – Ellison is burdened with the emotional anguish and literary responsibility to make things right for people he’s never met and to whom he has no relation. Not only must he provide for his family, but he must bring about justice for these strangers, at any and all costs. Nobody’s paid the price like he has paid the price.
– Ellison’s dream in life is to be a famous writer.
Later in the film, Tracy – again! – expresses her frustration with the many ways Ellison’s true crime research negatively impact their children’s lives, and he responds with:
Ellison: What else do you want from me?!
Tracy: How about a home where we feel safe, Ellison? How about a life that doesn’t involve our kids drawing and painting the sick details of some horrific tragedy? Or working out their deep-seated anxieties by doing bizarre shit in the middle of the night?…There are plenty of other ways you can provide for this family.
Ellison: Doing what? Teaching? Editing journalism textbooks?
Heaven forbid he support his family by writing college textbooks – that’s no path to fame and fortune. Much better for him to risk irreparably scarring his children’s psyches by raising them in a murder house!
– Tracy will leave him and take the children with her if this book “goes sour like the last two.”
Let’s take a moment to talk about Tracy. She is a woefully underwritten character whose only role in the film seems to be getting mad at Ellison for all the stupid things he does, and then forgiving him and supporting him some more, raising the kids and making him coffee – “Your father’s very particular about his coffee,” she tells their daughter Ashley (Clare Foley).
After (FINALLY!) discovering the truth about her new home’s grisly history (almost an hour and a half into a two hour movie!!!), Tracy calls Ellison out on his narcissistic, myopic bullshit:
Ellison: Don’t you understand that writing is what gives my life meaning? These [books] are my legacy!
Tracy: I have always supported you doing what you love, Ellison. But writing isn’t the meaning of your life. You and me, right here, this marriage, that’s the meaning of your life. And your legacy, that’s Ashley and Trevor. Your kids are your legacy.
It is incredibly satisfying to hear Tracy say all of the things I want to scream at Ellison, but she inevitably returns to her role as the dutiful, supportive wife, and the Oswalt family continues to stay in the house. This is a story about a man and his dreams and his nightmares and his goals and his fuckups, and she’s relegated to the sidelines, has absolutely no agency, no purpose except to support Ellison and take care of the kids. And she is literally the only adult female in the ENTIRE film.
Her threat to leave Ellison feels like the filmmakers feeding us another reason for Ellison to continue his “work,” despite his family’s growing sense of fear – another burden on his man-pained shoulders.
– He’s doesn’t believe in “any…um, you know…stuff.”
After Ellison is ripped through the floor of his attic – the power went out in the middle of the night and he heard weird thumping noises up there, so naturally he clamored on up to go spelunking – he meets the town’s Deputy.
The Deupty is never named; there’s a running joke that his name is (or might as well be) “Deputy So and So.” He plays the Fool to Ellison’s King Lear (another guy who makes a monumentally stupid decision in the beginning of his story that causes everyone in his family to die). Deputy So and So provides comic relief (and I found him to be pretty darn hilarious), but he also serves to shed light on Ellison’s position in this supernatural situation and to speak truth to Ellison’s power.
When Ellison finally freaks out enough about the house’s eerie happenings to seek guidance, he reaches out to the Deputy:
Ellison: Now, I don’t believe in any…um, you know…stuff.
Deputy: Stuff, you mean, the supernatural, the metaphysical, the paranormal, that type of stuff?
Deputy: Right. Of course you don’t. You never would have moved into a crime scene if you did. But here we are, having this conversation.
Ellison is a guy who sincerely does not believe that there exist such things as ghosts, or demons, or evil pagan deities – and if he really didn’t believe in any of that stuff, then the attack of the evil house monster is totally not his fault, right?
Except it’s still a murder house! Even if there were no malevolent presence, his kids would still be taunted and traumatized in school, he still would have to lie to his wife – it would still be a violation of his family’s sense of security.
Nevertheless, his disbelief is trotted out as yet another reason why a viewer should be accepting of his decisions to move to the murder house, stay in the murder house, and watch all the murder footage making faces like this:
So what’s truly driving Ellison? His sense of justice? His literary aspirations? His love for his wife? His manly skepticism about all things supernatural?
He’s doin’ it for the fame!
Here are two quotes from two separate interviews with director, Derrickson:
[H]e stays in the house because he has an even deeper fear of losing his status. It’s really a film about a guy who is trying to recover his lost fame and glory. And his fear of not recovering that riches and fame is the driving fear in the movie.
He’s staying because as much as he’s afraid of what’s on those films, as much as he’s afraid of the weird things that are starting to happen, he’s much more afraid of not regaining his status as a great true crime writer.
There you have it, folks. The filmmakers want us to like a guy who’s more afraid of losing his status than losing his entire family’s sense of safety in their own home.
Ellison accomplishes very little during his time “researching.” He watches snuff films, writes obvious questions on sticky notes, drinks, watches snuff films, drinks, watches old interviews from when he was briefly famous, drinks, and then watches snuff films again.
Ellison doesn’t solve the mystery; Deputy So and So figures it out. And when we finally reach that pivotal moment, when the family’s inescapable doom is revealed, the crucial information that the Deputy has uncovered seems like it should have been discovered way earlier in the investigation.
In a Sinister review titled Mr. Boogie, meet scarier Mr. Google, film critic Peter Howell writes:
It’s a given that people do dumb things in horror movies, such as failing to switch on the lights when they enter a dark room. Ellison does all these things and more. A certain indulgence is required, but Sinister writer/director Scott Derrickson and co-writer C. Robert Cargill expect too much.
Dumb becomes lazy way too often…Why doesn’t Ellison flip when he discovers a scorpion and a poisonous snake in his attic? Why does he need glasses, but takes them off to peer into the darkness?
Most important of all, why doesn’t Ellison just use Google to research the links between the killings at his house and similar ones across the U.S.?
Being forced to watch Sinister’s selfish, ineffective, narcissistic protagonist run around being an idiot for two hours ruins the few aspects of this film I do find to be well executed (pun intended): the found footage and the night terror sequences.
The found footage films are shot on actual 8 mm, and both the music and the visuals are utterly horrifying. I won’t post any pictures of them here — the images are that disturbing. The night terror scene – in which the son, Trevor (Michael Hall D’Addario), unfurls out of a cardboard box screaming – is another astoundingly terrifying moment:
Also, I am fascinated by films that implicate the viewer in a character’s crime: Ellison isn’t supposed to watch the found footage, so by extension neither is the viewer, and yet here I am watching him and watching it, complicit in his sin. How does our willful consumption of this hideously gruesome material impact our lives?
But these great moments are invariably spoiled by Ellison’s obnoxious manpain.
We see the most gruesome of the snuff films’ content reflected in his glasses, or blurred behind him while he turns to booze to ease his pain. We see the images projected onto his body:
The message becomes
HEY MEN: Everything is about you! Even other people’s murders are about you! GO AND LIVE YOUR DREAM! Lie to your wife if you need to! Traumatize your children! Only you can instill justice in this screwed up world! Only you can make things right! Only your status matters! YOU ARE THE DECIDER!
The family doesn’t leave the house until Ellison is directly confronted by the supernatural being in a face-to-face, unequivocally malevolent encounter. When Ellison tells Tracy that they have to pack up and leave immediately, she hesitates for the briefest moment, and he has the audacity to scream at her: “GO!!!” Nevermind that she never wanted to move into this house in the first place – or that even before she knew it was a murder house she wanted to leave! — now that HE feels frightened, it’s time to get out immediately.
The unfortunate consequence of prioritizing the likability of this mind-numbingly stupid male protagonist: the one woman in the entire film is relegated to the sidelines, serving no purpose but to yell and be yelled at, to make coffee and get murdered.