When one thinks of myths or folklore, the mind probably jumps to some iteration of the grim tale of Snow White or Rumplestiltskin. Peter Dowling’s “Sacrifice,” based on the book of the same name by Sharon Bolton, takes folklore to a whole other level — one that is even darker than the stories by the Grimm brothers.
The film opens with a scene almost straight from a nightmare. Doctor Tora Hamilton, played by Radha Mitchell, is about to perform a cesarian surgery on her pregnant patient who is in critical condition. Blood-spotted sheets surround the patient. However, the blood stains trail onto the floor and it is not the patient who is in critical condition, but Tora, who is having a miscarriage. Tora and her husband Duncan (Rupert Graves) had been trying to conceive a child, but were having no results. They found solace on the Shetland islands — islands hundreds of miles off of the coast of Duncan’s homeland: Scotland — to adopt a child instead. The island seems to be a dream come true until Tora unearths a corpse with ancient runes carved into it. From here, Tora pulls back the veil on the island that proved too good to be true. She discovers that the town has been run for centuries by an ancient, cult-like band of men who all believe themselves to be superior, sometimes even immortal. This band of men, the Shetland Rite, believe women are only vessels, a means by which to conceive a male heir. Consequently, as part of their ancient custom, the men will conceive a child with a woman and kill her on the ninth day after birth by carving her heart out because she has outlived her usefulness.
The title is misleading in that it sounds like it would be a horror film, when in reality it is a classic thriller. The leading lady Tora stumbles upon a mystery that has plagued the Shetland Islands for centuries, and yet, it isn’t until she starts digging around that the truth behind centuries of mysterious and unquestioned deaths is unearthed. It is a classic trope that works well with this film, especially in discussing cultural traditions and the cult-like power behind patriarchal ideologies.
What worked especially well for this film was the way in which it didn’t try to demonize ancient folklore through the creation of mythical creatures. Instead, the only evil to be found in this film is an ancient boy’s club and a city that chose to turn a blind eye to the mass deaths of women instead of finding the killer.
The film was well-executed, and it took a different and refreshing take on the thriller surrounding a folkloric mystery. Joining the ranks of films like “Gone Girl” and “Shutter Island,” Dowling’s “Sacrifice” will keep you on the edge of your seat.
The film opens in New York at the IFC on Friday, April 29, and will be available on Video On Demand the same day.
Email Dejarelle Gaines at [email protected]