To clear something up, despite having a villain that targets children, Sinister is not about Jerry Sandusky. It is a requisite Halloween movie that delivers some scares, but hardly anything more.
Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) moves with his wife Tracy (Juliet Rylance), son Trevor (Michael Hall D’Addario), and daughter Ashley (Clare Foley) into a new home. An author of true crime books, Ellison is not taken all that kindly to by the sheriff (Fred Dalton Thompson), who holds him responsible for a killer going free in a past case due to the theory in one of his books. This house has a certain significance to Ellison, one that he keeps from his family but the town knows all too well: it’s the scene of a mass murder.
The previous family, minus one child, was hung from a tree in the backyard; that child has since gone missing. And someone managed to record the whole thing. In the attic, Ellison finds a box with film reels and a projection machine. Firing it up, he sees for himself how it all happened, though there is no ostensible sign of the killer. Moving on to the next film, he witnesses a family being burned alive in their car. Again, no killer. He goes through them all and, sure enough, they all depict the murder of a family at their home.
But of course, when it comes to videos like these, one viewing is never enough. On re-watches, he begins to notice bizarre symbols and a strange, demonic face. He also finds a piece of artwork, simple drawings of all the murders and attributing them to a figure called “Mr. Boogie.” And, as always, odd things are happening around the house at night. The deputy (James Ransone), a fan of his who offers to help research the cases, suspects the supernatural at work and put him in touch with Professor Jonas (Vincent D’Onofrio). From the professor, Ellison learns just what he’s up against.
From the opening that shows the footage of the family being hanged, the presence of dread is very strong. This is really due to the films. With a home movie “quality” to them, they are highly unsettling and (warning: corny pun ahead) sinister. The performances are pretty good too. Hawke, not really one associated with the genre, does an admirable job, as does Rylance in a breakthrough performance. D’Onofrio , Thompson, and Ransome offer great support, though should have been used much more.
But it all builds towards a truly weak and unsatisfying conclusion. There’s no real fight or struggle to be had here, as well as containing a “reveal” that was fairly obvious all along. This is difficult to discuss without treading into spoiler territory, so I’ll just say this: the enjoyment for a film like this is seeing the characters put into a hole, and then seeing how they dig themselves out. Here, they don’t even try to leave.
Ellison’s career trajectory was that he achieved high success and interest early on, but eventually ran out of steam and failed to generate triumph. That’s just about the right description for Sinister as a whole.