“You know how they say you only hurt the ones you love? Well, it works both ways.” –Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club
The mutant offspring of Tuck Everlasting mating with Winter’s Bone as written by Shirley Jackson, Jug Face seems to exist as a morality tale — except there are no good lessons to be learned. Writer/director Chad Crawford Kinkle has created a rural Southern horror film about an isolated community with a unique belief system centered around placating a pit in the forest with human sacrifices. The centuries-old origins of this ritual are excellently and wordlessly explained in childlike animated drawings while dirge-like rock music plays. On the same day she is betrothed to a man she has no interest in, a member of this group named Ada (Lauren Ashley Carter) discovers she is next to be sacrificed. Scheming to escape her fate, Ada unwittingly plunges the whole community into bloody chaos.
Kinkle’s film is well made — beautifully shot in the woods, capturing all the verdant greens of trees and dark crimsons of bloodletting. The first-time filmmaker gets excellent performances all around, particularly from Sean Bridgers as the bumpkin prophet of the group; Larry Fessenden as the stern patriarch; and Sean Young as a country Lady Macbeth who violently wants to retain her kingdom. While it is a horror film and has various body parts strewn about to back up that status, it’s never scary. But there are intense moments that cause great unease — from sacrifice scenes and a couple being whipped bloody, to (perhaps the most discomforting) one in which Young’s mother character verifies Ada is a virgin in a claustrophobic bathroom.
A lot of times in disappointing movies, it’s easy to play “what if” and ponder the outcome if filmmakers had made different choices. Jug Face is by no means a disappointing movie (in fact it is very engaging) but it could have been stronger had Kinkle been more willing to be ambiguous with the nature of The Pit. If audiences were unsure if The Pit were mystical, then there would be a Wicker Man-like sense of revulsion while these forest dwellers slit each other’s throats. As it stands, Kinkle answers early and clearly that The Pit is indeed supernatural and these folks are right to abide its wrath and its desires.
Jug Face is unique yet familiar, drawing on those old stories of Jackson, Flannery O’Connor, or backwoods legends passed down through the years while producing a singular piece. By using the wide-eyed Carter as the audience’s stand-in, we empathize with the terror of her predicaments yet realize that she can only delay so many inevitables for so long. Twists in movies tend to be poorly done: hackneyed attempts at being clever. However, this film would have benefited from holding out on revealing the truth of The Pit to increase the tension and suggest an even darker reality. But as it stands, Kinkle has made a film that feels at home in the Southern Gothic tradition, returning ominous power to the shadows in those forgotten woods.