Fantasia 2019: SATOR Review – An Intimate Story of Handcrafted Dread
Starring Gabe Nicholson, Michael Daniel, Rachel Johnson, Aurora Lowe, June Peterson, Wendy Taylor
Written by Jordan Graham
Directed by Jordan Graham
Adam (Gabe Nicholson) lives a life of quiet isolation. He spends his days hunting, preparing food, and keeping watch for a spiritual presence in the forest called Sator. Adam and his brother, Pete (Michael Daniel), learn of Sator through their grandmother, Nani (June Peterson), who claims that this spirit has been guiding her through life as a whisper in her ear. Whether or not this entity was involved with the deaths of family members remains a question among the siblings, as they each struggle to process the ramifications of their grandmother’s beliefs in their own way. The presence eventually invades Adam’s life, with the threat of violence lurking behind the cover of the forest.
A movie like Sator is difficult to recount in synopsis form. Much of the story is communicated through inference, as the viewer must piece together a fractured narrative that is never spoon-fed. It’s a movie where very little happens and yet there is so much happening under the surface that it’s hard to track. Sator demands your attention. It rarely offers discrete explanations. The exposition is absorbed through familial subtext and readings of Nani’s notes, some of which were automatic writings via reception from Sator.
Anchored by a striking visual tone, Sator is a movie that you feel more than anything. The landscape of lush green and cold-blue mountains are captured with stunning cinematography. The vibrant, highly saturated hues of the rugged scenery contrast with the flashbacks, which are presented in grainy, black-and-white and 4:3 aspect ratio. These desaturated flashbacks have a trance-like quality. They are inexplicably unnerving in their austerity, only to surprise with you a compelling, unnatural image that reminds you of the looming violence behind the being known as Sator.
What is truly remarkable about Sator is that its creator, Jordan Graham, crafted this dread-inspiring piece of artwork almost entirely on his own. He not only shot, wrote, directed, and edited the film; his other credits include: production designer, costumer, composer, sound designer/mixer, makeup, visual and special effects, and more. This dude even built the cabin it was filmed in himself. The cinematic labor of love took Graham five years to complete. And the fact that Sator was essentially created by one person may not even be the most interesting behind-the-scenes story.
Graham’s film is intensely personal, as it was inspired by his family’s experiences with Sator. His grandmother, great-grandmother, and great-great-grandmother all heard voices that led to hospitalization, and sadly, suicide in one of their cases. Graham’s grandmother, who passed away in 2019, offered her writings and stories for use in the film. The authenticity behind her recounting of Sator is a major part of what makes the film so effective. There’s a tragic realness to the story that is simultaneously heartbreaking and chilling.
Sator is not a film for everyone (but that’s the case with truly interesting movies). It is slow and quiet. The inexperience of the actors occasionally shows, with performances feeling oddly hollow. If the cinematography was not as excellent as it was, the film would not work. While this DIY movie is surprisingly not so rough around the edges, it is a movie that requires patience, as it rarely rewards the viewer with answers or action.
I recommend Sator to those who liked the slow build-up and sadness of Lake Mungo, or the subtle need to read between the lines in Kill List. Go into this one wide awake and, if possible, see it on the big screen where you can be fully absorbed by its ominous look and feel.
Stylized and somber, Sator gets under your skin with a minimalist approach. The story behind the making of the film lends a chilling authenticity to its exploration of the entity that resides in the woods and in the minds of those who are receptive to its call. Prepare yourself for a film that is measured and simple, yet beautiful and full of personal depth.