Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Sacrifice (2016)

Warning: spoilers are as inevitable as the cold indifference of the universe

After a series of miscarriages, medical doctor Tora Hamilton (Radha Mitchell) and her husband Duncan Guthrie (Rupert Graves) decide to adopt a child. Because these people are rich shits only a baby will do, so they move to Duncan’s native Shetland where his family is involved in a clinic and adoption centre. They’ll just have to live and work in Scotland for twelve months and a new-born will be theirs. Who knew this baby adoption stuff is that easy?

While digging a hole to bury a horse in the peat around the house Duncan’s father (David Robb) found for them, Tora discovers a peat body. It’s a dead woman whose heart has been cut out, with runes branded on her back. She also must have delivered a baby only about a week or so before her death. The local police under DI McKie (Ian McElhinney) isn’t particularly perturbed about the dead body. Only thanks to Tora’s agreeable nosiness (we’re probably meant to think it’s caused by the magical word “baby” rather than her being very civic-minded, but let’s not go there) and her ability to look up weather news in old newspapers can they even be convinced the body is only a few years old, but there’s clearly nothing being done at all to even identify the corpse.

Not surprisingly, Tora assumes this amount of incompetence can’t be real, and somebody is trying to conceal some kind of secret. Soon, she finds herself involved in various – often rather illegal – avenues of research that suggest a kind of crazy fertility cult connection to proceedings. Finally, Tora does manage to convince McKie’s subordinate DS Dana Tulloch (Joanne Crawford) – who’s initially from Dundee – that something very mysterious is going on, but will the two women beat the patriarchy?

Sacrifice is a rather frustrating film. It features a highly competent cast, excellent photography, and decent if sometimes somewhat clumsy direction – just try and manage to watch the scene of Tora in front of the burning car and not start to giggle at the clichéd way it is staged – by Peter A. Dowling but manages not to use any of this quite to its own advantage.

The film’s main problem is how willing its is to fall back on very tired and standard gothic romance/romantic thriller and conspiracy thriller tropes without actually showing the ability to make effective use of them. Consequently, the conspiracy here does everything an evil conspiracy does in a movie, without thought or care taken if what it does actually makes sense for it. So of course the conspiracy leaves an absurd body trail for something that must have been a secret for several hundred years, and makes an hilariously bad job of making up excuses and picking scapegoats, while blocking every of Tora’s early investigations in exactly the way that is most bound to make her more suspicious. The conspiracy is also based on beliefs that just don’t work for the people that are supposed to have them.

It is particularly annoying because Sacrifice has a perfectly decent basic fear at its core, seeing as it concerns itself with a patriarchal secret society that can only see women as breeders and – literally – sacrifices and a modern woman fighting against it, with all the potential for social critique and paranoia towards the men who are closest to a woman that offers. However, the film’s treatment of this is so flabby, bland, and old-fashioned it actually manages to take this set-up and not feel feminist at all; one might praise it for at least not being misogynist, but having no position at all relating to a rather important part of one’s plot does nobody any good. Certainly not a viewer who expects a film to do more than just go through the motions of a thriller when its obvious possibilities for angry, or terrifying, or effectively depressing filmmaking are basically screaming in your face.

As it is, this is a perfectly watchable film that’ll probably anger nobody, which would be fantastic if not evoking emotions or thoughts were what films are for.

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