Sacrifice Dir. Peter A. Dowling

[IFC Films; 2016]

Styles: mystery
Others: The Wicker Man

Building a mystery is hard work. Making sure there are enough red herrings and misdirects to lead to a surprising outcome, but enough of a breadcrumb trail that it’s not too surprising to the audience, is a tightrope act that takes patience, trust, and talent. Of course many mystery films — like Fletch, The Wicker Man, The Big Sleep, or Kiss Kiss Bang Bang — have convoluted mystery plots, but they take a backseat to interesting characters, witty dialogue, or other engaging stylistic elements that are more entertaining than figuring out whodunit. Unfortunately, when neither the mystery nor its trappings are interesting, audiences end up with a flat story that they are ahead of and merely wait for the film to catch up to them. This is the case of Sacrifice, written and directed by Peter A. Dowling, which is a perfectly adequate film, but could easily have been more if the script had been better developed. What’s left is a fine film, perfectly diverting, but ultimately a bit boring as the whole thing feels undercooked.

Tora (Radha Mitchell) has moved to Sheitland Islands, Scotland, with her husband (Rupert Graves) after a series of miscarriages. They are looking to adopt a child there while Tora adapts to the cultural change and works as an OB-GYN at the local hospital. While digging in her yard, Tora uncovers the corpse of a woman covered in pagan symbols and apparently ritualistically murdered. Who was this slain woman and what does her death have to do with the local fables of an ancient race devoted to eugenics and a superior bloodline?

The problem with Sacrifice is that it’s exactly what a viewer expects it to be: there’s nothing surprising in the entirety of its runtime. Dowling doesn’t do a good job of developing plausible alternatives to the clear narrative that’s running through the film, so any reveals are met with mumbles of assertion and not a gasp of shock. Furthermore, it doesn’t have enough of a mean streak in it to really do the story justice; it would be one thing if the “mystery” wasn’t surprising but the depths of depravity the filmmaker is willing to go to in order to show off the threat of his antagonists was surprising. Instead everything here is strictly as it seems, with very little surprise or interesting developments.

Everything else is in the film is simply adequate. Mitchell, above all else, does a good job in her Quincy, M.E. impersonation of an investigating doctor probing the secrets of an isolated town, conjuring up memories of Edward Woodward in 1973’s The Wicker Man; the outsider who walks amongst hidden threats and enemies. The rest of the cast is perfectly fine, if a bit one note, in all of their roles, with Graves and Ian McElhinney (as the local constable) showing some spark of life and subtle shades of nuance in their characterizations. The cinematography is very good for a TV movie, but for a feature film is simply OK, or rather flat and serviceable without anything innovative or interesting being done with the camera. Similarly, the score and the sound design is perfectly fine (read: fairly boring) without being anything memorable.

Sacrifice isn’t a bad film, it’s just not a good one. It lacks the twists and turns needed to really sell the ideas at play, which is a shame as there is certainly a good idea for a movie in there. Perhaps if it had been shot with more flair, or had something else to highlight besides the plodding plot, it could be redeemed. But as it currently exists, it’s a serviceable tale of the past haunting the present and the arcane beliefs of a people tormenting their descendants. Which is fine, but it makes the proceedings more of a slog than they need be.

Most Read