Alone in his office at night, glass of booze by his side, accomplished writer Ellison Oswalt is watching footage from an old television interview he took part in several years prior. He looks younger in the tape, and decidedly happier. He notes, during the interview, that he’d rather cut his hands off than write a book for fame or money. As he watches the interview back, Oswalt is clearly depressed by his own words. Because he knows, just as we do, that his current book is driven precisely by those two things.
Ellison Oswalt’s inherent character flaw, which ultimately leads to his demise, is not so much that he wants to be rich and famous, but rather that he absolutely needs to be. It’s been many years since Oswalt struck gold with one of his books, the true crime novel Kentucky Blood, and his entire existence is colored by the need to have one more hit. He tells himself that he’s driven by providing for his wife and two young kids, but deep down Ellison knows that his true desire is to remain relevant as an artist.
What makes Ellison Oswalt such a great character is that he’s a deeply flawed human being, feeling like a protagonist ripped out of Stephen King’s oeuvre. He cares about his family, this much is hard to dispute, though almost every single decision Ellison makes is dictated not by his love for them, but rather by his love for his work. And we pick up on this from the moment we meet him: the Oswalt family is moving into a new home, and the only moving box Ellison cares to acknowledge is the one containing his work – it’s a moment most writers can likely relate to, whether they want to admit it or not.
Ellison’s hyper-focus on his work is also reflected in the house itself, which was recently the site of a mass murder. Four of the five members of the previous family that lived there were hung from a tree in the backyard, and the young daughter went missing in the wake of the murders. This is the story that Ellison’s next book is based on, and he feels that it will only be a hit if it’s written in the actual house where the tragedy occurred. But Ellison doesn’t clue his family in on this little detail, because he knows the history of the house will terrify them – and he outwardly lies, when his wife asks about their new home.
One could argue that Ellison doesn’t know he’s putting his family in jeopardy at the outset, despite the fact that he’s keeping such a major piece of information from them, but it quickly becomes clear that he doesn’t exactly have the best interests of his family in mind. Ellison’s work is obviously having a negative impact on his young son, who draws a picture in school of a family being hanged, and even when his son’s night terrors become frighteningly intense, Ellison never contemplates bringing him to the doctor or acknowledging that his work might be at fault. He ignores the signs, and continues working.
As for Ellison’s wife, she’s clearly unhappy in their marriage, and she even remarks early in the film that if things go south with the next book – as they have in the past, we learn – she will take the kids and leave him. She tells Ellison that he’s missing out on being there while their kids are growing up, and his response, as always, is that everything will be back to normal once the book is finished. But Ellison’s wife knows this to be untrue, no matter how much success he achieves with the book. Because an artist’s work is never finished, and she is beginning to realize that Ellison’s true love will always be his work.
Another telling character moment is when Ellison begins watching the Super 8 ‘home movies’ he finds in his attic, which contain footage of entire families being murdered. His first instinct is to call the cops and alert them of the find, and also to make them aware of the connection between those murders from the past and the ones that took place in his new backyard. But he has a change of heart right after the number is dialed. Looking at a copy of Kentucky Blood on a shelf in his office, he’s compelled to hang up the phone and keep the horrific discovery to himself – after all, the book will be a bigger hit if it contains information that only Ellison knows.
Sinister is of course a horror film about a demon named Bughuul, who forces children to kill their families and then consumes their souls, but underneath the scary movie concept is a much more human story about a man so deeply involved in his work that he simply does not have time for his family. And it’s not that Ellison is a bad person so much as he is a flawed one, unknowingly walking his loved ones hand-in-hand towards a horrific fate that he would see coming from a mile away, if only he wasn’t so blinded by his insatiable desire to be relevant, successful, and beloved by everyone but his own family.
“These books are my legacy,” Ellison insists at one point in the film. “Your legacy, that’s Ashley and Trevor,” his wife responds. “Your kids are your legacy.” If only he had realized that sooner.
Above all else, Scott Derrickson’s terrifying horror film is a portrait of a tortured artist driven by all the wrong things, hinging his entire life on his next piece of art and ultimately destroying his life in the process. Sinister is not just a great movie, but like all the great movies in history, it’s also a great character study. And Ellison Oswalt, played to perfection by Ethan Hawke, is one of the great horror characters of the past decade.
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