Sator is streaming on Prime
Timing is everything. So many aspects of our lives depend on a certain something taking place at a certain moment. Meet the right person at the right moment, and they could become a lifelong friend or the great love of your life. If the timing is off? You might never meet them at all, or you might catch them at a low point and be repelled.
Art is the same way. Imagine you’re in Florence and your plan for the day is to view Michaelangelo’s famous statue of David. In one instance, you got a good night’s sleep, you’re not hangry, and you’ve managed to beat the crowds. When you step in front of that iconic statue, you’re in just the right headspace to appreciate it. Yet if your partner snored, your breakfast order was screwed up, and approximately 17,000 other people are jammed into the Galleria Dell’Accademia with you, odds are you’ll look at that masterwork of Rennaissance sculpture and think, “It’s a naked dude. Big deal.”
I’ve been doing this critic gig for a few years now. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that timing can affect the frame of mind you have when watching a movie. Too often, a viewer will see something and respond with a “Meh,” or a “That sucked,” and it turns out they never gave the film a fair chance in the first place. I almost made that mistake with Sator, a film of considerable power that simply didn’t mesh with me during the viewing.
There’s a moment common to every person that’s spent time in the woods alone. It’s a tangible sense of being observed. The question is, who or what is watching, and what are their intentions? Adam (Gabriel Nicholson) is acutely aware that, even in a remote Northern California forest, something has turned its attention to him.
Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that, whatever is watching, has turned its attention to what remains of Adam’s family. His grandfather has died. His grandmother Noni (June Peterson) seems to be in the grip of senility, but senility doesn’t explain her automatic writing and her conversations regarding Sator, a spirit of some kind that’s been with her for years.
Is Sator the problem, then? It’s unclear since Adam’s sister Evie (Rachel Johnson) and brother Pete (Michael Daniel) obliquely mention Adam’s history of mental illness. Their mother may have vanished, and for the safety of the family, Adam may have been exiled to the lonely cabin in the midst of the woods.
It’s not so bad, considering the cabin has rudimentary electricity and Adam has his loyal dog for company. Adam just can’t shake the feeling he’s being watched, and he obsessively checks videotapes from the deer cams he’s installed. But when his dog vanishes and the video begins picking up images of some kind of horned apparition, Adam and his family learn they’re in the grip of something sinister, and that grip is tightening.
Filmmaking is an act of pure will. That willpower informs every action, every decision. For proof of that, look no further than director Jordan Graham. Sator took him seven years to make, and he also produced, shot the film, handled the music and sound effects, color graded the film, and literally built a cabin that much of the film was shot at. This is one of the few instances where a title card could read “A Jordan Graham Film,” and it would be a totally accurate statement.
Despite Graham having made the film, is it any good? Oh, yes. Sator, from start to finish, is a slow burn.* Graham takes the time to create an atmosphere of slowly escalating unease. He does that partially by switching between ominous forest photography and home video footage depicting Noni’s experiences with Sator. Additionally, Graham’s timing is impeccable. Just when you think you’re getting a handle on things, he’ll bounce to a scene involving a cryptic aspect of family lore or a sequence with a foreboding cave. It all creates a dreamlike feeling of dread, a muted horror that you can’t wake up from.
Oh, and along with all the other stuff Graham did, he also wrote the screenplay. Look back into his family history and you’ll see a history of mental illness. June Peterson was Graham’s actual grandmother, and for decades, she alleged that an unseen presence named Sator communicated with her and caused instances of automatic writing.** Graham wove this into the script, creating a weird, Lovecraftian quasi-mythology. While it feels powerful, the writing often becomes muddled and unclear. We never get a strong sense of Sator’s motivations, and perhaps that’s the point? I had a vague idea of the family dynamics, but I wished the characterization was sharper and more defined.
When it comes to the quality of actors in an independent film, it tends to be a mixed bag. Unless they are absolutely blown away by your script, Meryl Streep or Michael B. Jordan probably aren’t going to be in your independent film. That’s the risk you run making an independent film — your cast might be competent, hidden gems, or sentient cardboard cutouts. Across the board, Graham’s cast is solid. If there’s a star, it’s Gabriel Nicholson as Adam. He has barely any dialogue, and perhaps that’s not a problem. Nicholson has an interesting physical presence. He seems to be just barely holding on, and the solitude of the woods is, initially, the only thing helping him to do that.
For a certain kind of horror junkie, one looking for awesome kills and quips aplenty, Sator will likely feel like an interminable bore. If you go into it understanding that it takes its time and its horror is less about jump scares and more of a surreal unknowability, I think you’ll get more out of it. Jordan Graham was fueled by passion while making this film. It’s a strange little film that, for a certain kind of viewer, will get under the skin.
*A criticism one could make is that it’s too slow a burn. The pacing is glacial at times, and characters often speak with very long pauses. Imagine mumblecore but with people getting killed.
**Graham wrote that as dementia robbed Peterson of the memories of her family, Sator was the one aspect of her life she never forgot.