As the credits roll on Sator, audience members might note that under Jordan Graham’s name, there’s an entire paragraph of responsibilities listed. Writer, director, producer, cinematographer, editor, sound designer, composer, set decorator and so much more, Graham constructed this deeply unusual picture purely on the strength of his own talent, hard work and imagination.
Okay, not only his imagination. The story – of siblings Adam (Gabriel Nicholson), Deborah (Aurora Lowe) and Pete (Michael Daniel) confronting their grandmother Nani (June Peterson)’s history with a supernatural entity whose presence has affected their family in devastating ways – is inspired quite weightily by Graham’s own inherited family trauma. In fact, Peterson is Graham’s actual grandmother, and she, his great-grandmother and his great-great-grandmother were each, at different times in their lives, placed in psychiatric facilities for hearing voices. Peterson communicated with Sator, what Graham calls her “guardian angel,” for decades via automatic writing, a fascinating angle that Graham weaves into the narrative of the film (we actually see some of Peterson’s automatic writing and drawings of Sator from over the years, and the opening and closing credits are scribbled out in the same haphazard manner).
The result of a story so personal told in such a singularly personal way is like watching somebody else’s dream: weird and fascinating, sometimes impenetrable, always enthralling. Sator is swimming in striking images, some nightmarish (like the antlered agents of Sator that haunt the woods surrounding Adam’s cabin) and some as awe-inspiring as any we’d see on Planet Earth. A prodigious red oak lies upended on the forest floor, its vines creating a network of secretive, mossy hollows. A white fox scampers in the snow; a spider spins in a dew-dressed web; a snail slinks his inexorable way across a fallen log.
Over these lovely visions that are stamping themselves onto our neural pathways, we hear Peterson’s lilting, disassociated voice: “Are you ready to have dominion over every creeping thing that creeps?” There’s so much beauty here, but also sadness, and weirdness, and fear, packaged together in a nebulous way that, granted, doesn’t always make a lot of narrative sense, but never fails to make emotional sense. Not everything works – next to the absolute authenticity of Peterson living out her lifelong connection to this unknowable entity onscreen, the rest of the performances can’t help but feel a little affected, and there’s a third act turn that rings false – but what does work is so new and interesting that the rest kind of falls away by the end. And the cinematography and sound design – both by Graham, of course – are curious and unnerving, making even the less effective script beats land.
Sator, in its fuzzy, dreamlike way, is about generational wounds and the lasting scars mental illness can leave on a family, but it also seems to be about finding hope and beauty wherever we can. It’s scary and sleepy and utterly strange, a dusky little dream of a film that no one on earth could make but Jordan Graham. Can we say that about most films, that only one person alive could make them? That uncommon, unrepeatable vision is what gives Sator its dark magic.