Thursday, July 30, 2009

Acolytes (2009)

Hailing from Australia, Acolytes is a slow-paced yet thrilling film that has quite a few surprises. Though the synopsis might make it seem like a straightforward story of kids blackmailing a serial killer to get revenge on a bully, the film is much more than that. It takes its time building up the tension for an explosive and bloody finale, all the while commenting on how evil can live behind the white picket fence just next door.

Our story opens with three teens – Mark (Sebastian Gregory), Chasely (Hannah Morgan Lawrence), and James (Joshua Payne) hanging out after school. Mark and James have been friends since they were little kids, but there is friction between them now that James is going out with Chasely, whom Mark is obviously infatuated with. When James and Chasely start to get into some heavy petting, Mark wanders off into the woods, where he comes across a man burying something. After getting a glimpse of the man’s distinctive SUV (it has a butterfly design on the back of the spare tire cover), Mark runs back to tell James and Chasely. The three return to the woods with shovels to see what the man was burying and discover a body in the shallow hole. When the cops don’t believe them, they track down the killer (Joel Edgerton) and try to blackmail him into helping them kill a bully (Michael Dorman) who caused them irreparable harm when they were kids. What they don’t count on is the killer’s truly sadistic nature as he quickly turns the tables on them.

Acolytes is quite a chilling, thrilling film from Down Under. The most chilling aspect of it was its suggestion that evil can live right next door with the seemingly pleasant married couple who have just had a baby. If you really think about it, our society is so distant from one another that it is not hard to believe you would ignore screams if they were coming from next door. Or is you saw your neighbor carrying what looked like a body bag into his house. Chances are, you would just ignore what you saw, mentally brushing it off as none of your business. So, living next door or in the same town as a serial killer really isn’t that hard to imagine. Neither is it hard to believe that if pushed far enough, you could also become a killer…

Director Jon Hewitt filmed Acolytes on a relatively low budget, but from looking at the picture you’d never be able to tell. There are some truly gorgeous shots in the film, like a panning shot of a blue-tinged dawn in the beginning of the film. The film on a whole looks great, from bright, wide-open shots at the beginning of the story to more dark and claustrophobic shots as the film nears its end. Though it does take a while to get doing, I thought the slow burn approach was appropriate as we get to know the characters and their pasts. Some viewers might find it a bit languid, but I felt the pacing was near perfect.

The story, written by Shayne Armstrong, Shane Krause and Jon Hewitt, is intriguing and surprising. Even if the synopsis seems straightforward, it really isn’t and the story takes you dark places you didn’t think the film would go. While the first half of the film focuses on the teens, the latter half focuses more on the killer as he turns the tables on them. The characters are all realistically portrayed and even the bad decisions the teens make seem entirely plausible. Plus, there is a wicked twist towards the end that explains the whole “acolyte” (meaning a “devoted follower or attendant”) title.

Most of the violence is reserved until the last half of the film, but there is a jarring opening sequence that shows a young, half-naked girl being terrorized in the woods. As for the rest of the action, we get lots of exciting car chases (and crashes), cross-bow hunting, a head getting repeatedly bashed in by a large rock, stabbings, kidnappings and so on. While the first half of the film has a tense, ominous feel to it, the last half revels in the release of pent-up aggression.

I’m not sure what I expected out of Acolytes (perhaps a standard slash ‘n’ hack movie) but what I saw far exceeded my expectations. It’s moody, atmospheric beginning slowly gives way to bloody violence that eventually leads to a grim conclusion.

Buy it on Amazon!

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