“Nothing stays buried forever.”
Director: Jon Hewitt
Cast: Joel Edgerton, Michael Dorman, Sebastian Gregory
Synopsis: Three teenagers blackmail a serial killer.
About thirty minutes into Jon Hewitt’s Acolytes, James (Joshua Payne) asks his friend Mark (Sebastian Gregory) just what the hell he was doing in the woods when he stumbled across a man burying a body. Mark doesn’t get the chance to answer because their attention is immediately distracted, but the question is deliberately left hanging that way because the audience should be asking themselves the same question. It’s a moment of subtlety in an increasingly discordant thriller that takes an intriguing premise, keeps it interesting to the end, but ultimately takes maybe one twist too many before the final credits roll.
James and Mark are about fifteen-years-old. They hang around a lot together, and with Chasely (Hannah Mangan Lawrence), James’ girlfriend. James and Chasely spend a lot of time making out while Mark looks on morosely, and it’s clear that he has a major crush on his friend’s girl. The ambivalence between the two friends initially appears to stem from this conflict, but as we get to know them better we learn that there is something altogether more disturbing that also links them.
A young girl has disappeared from the town in which they live. Missing posters are pinned to lamp posts, but we see little police activity geared towards finding her. In fact, for much of the first half of the film the kids appear to live in a world almost completely devoid of adults — or at least in which adults are unseen. That’s what being a teenager is like; you live in a bubble into which only your friends can gain admittance, and which gives you a false sense of immortality. When Mark sees a man in the woods burying a body he immediately tells his friends, and together they return to the spot with spades of their own, determined to find out what he was burying.
Of course, they find a body — but it’s the body of a Canadian back-packer, not the missing girl. When Mark tries to phone a disbelieving police force, James hangs up and proposes finding the killer themselves. Their intention is to blackmail him into murdering a local thug as an act of revenge for a crime against the boys that is only gradually revealed. They enter into this plot with the breezy ignorance of youth, completely unaware that, by blackmailing a serial killer they immediately place themselves on his hit list…
Acolytes maintains a remarkably down to earth tone for much of its running time, steering clear of conventional horror movie developments. Although the net is closing in around them, the danger the kids are in remains largely on the periphery of their awareness until they suddenly find themselves in too deep to extricate themselves. They track down the killer thanks to the distinctive butterfly motif on the spare wheel cover on the rear of his 4x4, and sneak into his house when his deaf wife goes shopping. James pisses in the bathtub of the spotless house, and we instinctively know that he has somehow sealed his fate. They’re not a particularly likeable bunch — at least the boys aren’t — and the girl is either confused about which of them she really fancies or is slyly playing them off against one another.
Joel Edgerton plays Ian Wright, the serial killer, and he gives a performance of chilling calm and rationality. He looks like an ordinary suburbanite — a little buttoned-down, maybe — and he refuses to be panicked into action. He considers his options and acts upon coolly measured observations. It’s a performance of quite power for the most part, and his is by far the most interesting character in the film. His relationship with his wife, a deaf woman, is also intriguing and it would have been nice to have learned more about them.
Acolytes is no groundbreaker, but it’s a decent movie of its type. It deceives its audience without ever really lying; it just sneaks all the relevant pieces of information in unnoticed. The visual style is eye-catching without being too obtrusive, and it has a great soundtrack. Definitely one worth catching.