Navigating through indie movie offerings can be a tall order. I’m often reminded of the days that I went out into the South Surinam jungle swamps, fishing for kwikwi with a casting net. That’s the local name for an armoured catfish that the locals know how to cook into an absolute delicacy with the simplest of means, with seasonings grown in the backyard and herbs harvested from the very same swamp.
But before reaping those delicious rewards, I needed to cover a considerable distance, plowing through murky and muddy waters and braving the stench of rotting eggs. And then, once finally feasting on that kwikwi dish, you realize: it’s all been worth it.
Such is the case with Sator, the movie that’s the delicious kwikwi dish after endlessly stomping through the swamp, after going through hours and hours of cheaply made indie pulp looking for that one gem, the movie that will make me happily go through all the bad ones again and again, because I know there’s more to be found.
In this article, I will try to make sense of why I think Sator is such a precious and exceptional movie by treating it on three levels: as straight-up entertainment, as a thematic movie, and as a personal testament, or reckoning if you will, from its director and every other job capacity this movie called for, Jordan Graham.
First, let’s deal with the movie as a piece of entertainment, much of which Jim already adequately covered in his movie review. The synopsis, such as it is, can be read there as well so I won’t expand much on it here. To get the elephant in the room right out of the way: Sator definitely won’t be for everyone. It’s a demanding movie.
Watching it with friends, beer and buckets of popcorn at the ready while having a drinking game on each time they say ‘let’s split up to go look for her’ won’t just turn the night into a very dry and sober one, it will also reduce this movie to a borefest, a random collage of slow, narratively unrelated vignettes devoid of hip music.
Sator demands focus, attention to every detail no matter how seemingly minute, because literally everything matters. Graham deliberately tells his story in a visual manner, with his real-life mother as the character Nani in the movie. She is an occasional narrator of sorts who alternately tells and recites cryptic descriptions of what Sator entails throughout the movie, leaving much to the viewer to piece the whole narrative together.
The bad news is, probably no amount of focus will let you find all the resolutions to all the threads that Graham uses to weave his story within one single viewing. You will almost certainly need multiple viewings to unravel all the hints and peel away all the layers.
The good news: the movie ultimately does tell a well-rounded, fully resolved story. It just needs to be found and you’ll have to work for it. This begs the question of why Graham would choose such an intriguing way to some (like me), or an overly convoluted way to others, to get his story across. And I believe the movie’s backstory – more on that later – provides the answer to that question.
Graham needed to tell his story this way, simply because there was no other way to do it. It’s not artsiness but basic necessity, both artistically and practically, that forced him to do so. In a way, he takes us on the same journey that he had to make himself to conceive this movie. It can be fascinating or frustrating.
Graham leaves that entirely up to us because we’re watching the movie on his terms. Put David Lynch and Dante Tomaselli together to direct a folk-horror movie, add Graham himself to produce and to add his own, undeniably distinct flavour, and you get a bit of the gist of what kind of movie you’re in for.
But it’s not just what is being shown on screen, or narrated by Nani, who’s the movie’s central character even though we’re following the proceedings mostly from Adam’s perspective. It’s also how this movie is made. Alternating aspect ratios to establish time and place, deliberate camera movement, carefully handled footage inserts, meticulous sound design, and the glossy feel of the movie overall; everything is handled with the utmost of care and lovingly put together by a skilled, talented and dedicated moviemaker.
Even just a scribbling fountain pen over a piece of paper never looked and sounded so ominous and intriguing. One can’t help but feel like Graham put literally and figuratively, physically and emotionally, financially and artistically, everything he had into this movie. Which in and by itself also conveys the movie’s central underlying theme.
This brings me neatly along to the themes this movie is dealing with. Graham’s mother June Peterson, who portrays Nani in the movie, suffers from dementia but has remarkably lucid episodes when discussing Sator. This is not a plot point that was planned from the get-go, but something Graham actually noticed and experienced when visiting his ailing mother.
Being a filmmaker, he just started rolling whatever camera he had available and reworked the footage into his movie, originally and until then planned and intended as a cabin-in-the-woods horror movie. Redeveloping his script, and restructuring and reshooting his movie would ultimately take 5 years to develop and complete into what we have now.
Graham intricately connects Sator to the mental challenges the family is plagued by. Nani is afflicted by dementia, her late husband was possessed, Adam has been institutionalized with a severe mental breakdown and brother Pete has a history with alcoholism. And Sator, a dark mystical forest deity, is at the root of all the troubles in one way or another.
Graham wisely shrouds Sator in ambiguity as to whether it’s a supernatural force or an allegorical – or even imagined – symbol of the family’s ordeals. For this reason, I’m not entirely convinced whether it was really necessary to give Sator his physical depiction in the movie’s final act. Personally, I could have done well without it, even though the execution is splendid from a cinematic standpoint. It simply would have kept Sator more enigmatic without this visual exposition.
Nursing Nani and keeping the tenuous family ties together is Adam’s and Pete’s sister, Deborah. Unaffected by Sator and mental issues, but scathed by extension, life has made her bitter and callous. But she also desperately holds on to whatever love and care she still has left in her. Even though she never goes out to the cabin to visit Adam herself, she lends Pete her car each time for him to do so without question.
Tragically, her humane side will ultimately also be her undoing. Sator’s harbinger to Adam is personified by the character Evie, a former friend of the family who was killed in an accident earlier. She only seems to appear to Adam and, now possessed by Sator, doesn’t recognize Adam from before. But once her job with Adam is completed, Sator mercilessly reclaims her, further revealing his ruthless nature.
On that level Sator could be viewed as a commentary on religious fanaticism and cultism. In the movie, Sator is a deity with devoted disciples, possessing those who join and violently sacrificing those who refuse to go along. Sator posits the issue of what harm it can do to families by driving them apart and even insane, but at the same time offering relief to those who suffer incurably. These are my own musings and I have no evidence suggesting that Graham actually intended his movie to be interpreted this way. But the similarities are undeniably there, and on that level, Sator contemplates the force fields between religion, (in)sanity and (human) nature.
It also brings value and meaning of free will into question. Adam deliberately wanted to find Sator, thereby making himself vulnerable and eventually willfully surrendering to him. What is Adam’s free will when he exercises it with the sole purpose of giving it up? Through Nani, Sator demands qualities that are not uncommon in religion: adherence without question, devotion, and fear.
The reward is a deeper understanding of nature but there is no promise of bliss or paradise. Ironically, the only character who seems to enjoy at least some measure of happiness is Nani, whose faculties are severely challenged by dementia. Her will is broken and what’s left of it is, by her own admission, governed by Sator as it has always been. She hasn’t just resigned to this, no, she’s totally fine with it. She has an uplifting, almost cheerful demeanour, which makes her all the more endearing considering her dire condition. Until that final, bone-chilling moment, that is.
June Peterson sadly passed away during the final stages of Sator’s production, and Graham rightfully dedicates his movie to her. Acting is solid across the board, but Ms. Peterson is particularly magnetic with her unforgettable performance. Ironically, she wasn’t acting or even really performing. She was just being her, unimpeded by the camera due to her mental condition, untrained as an actor, and likely even oblivious to the fact she was being filmed at all. And yet, she carries the movie all the way on her frail shoulders.
Graham’s movie is a testament to her, but also to the devastating effects of dementia and other mental afflictions, on both individuals and on entire families. The partially autobiographical nature of Sator, and the endlessly meticulous way the movie was made, must have been a catharsis for Graham, a reckoning of a tremendously impactful episode within his own inner circle of people.
But aside from all the backstory and philosophical musings, the movie itself, with its intricate narrative structure, amazing performances, fabulous visuals and stunning sound design is a veritable cinematic marvel, produced with limited means and made to rise way above its budgetary constraints by sheer dedication, skill and talent. It therefore also serves as a monumental testament to indie filmmaking. Sator may not be the most accessible, hence not the easiest marketable movie but Graham made the movie he felt he had to make regardless. That’s artistic integrity in its purest, unadulterated form.
This is why I think this movie belongs amongst the greatest of greats in the genre’s hall of fame of the past decade. This is also, in closing, the reason why you, dear reader, should go watch it for yourself if you managed to read this article all the way to this point. But take heed, the movie may demand way more time than just its 90-minutes nominal runtime to fully appreciate. Rewatch it if you’ve already seen it. Me? I’m currently at five viewings and still learning. I guess Sator has me after all.