Written and Directed by: Chad Crawford Kinkle
Starring: Sean Bridgers, Lauren Ashley Carter, and Larry Fessenden
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
"The pit wants what it wants."
History has proven that nothing is scarier than human beings with a deep-seated, backwards-ass belief system, and the horror genre has doubly proved that it’s even worse when they’re held by backwards-ass rural folk just looking for an excuse to sacrifice heathens. Jug Face looks all set to explore and reinforce this with a peek into a really bizarre strain of superstitious backwoods dwellers, only the film can’t get out of its own way: while Chad Crawford Kinkle helms his directorial debut with assuredness, his script is a bit too tangled and unwieldy to capitalize on all of its unsettling possibilities because it almost immediately dispenses with ambiguity and degenerates into an admittedly weird but less effective supernatural creepshow.
After a clever animated clever sequence scrawls out the general lay of the wilderness, we’re introduced to Ada (Lauren Ashley Carter), a young girl being coaxed into a bout of woodsy sex by a smoldering boy named Jessaby (Daniel Manche). Her decision to yield to her carnal passions is a cataclysmic event within her deeply superstitious community. Primarily composed of moonshiners and mountain men, the clan pays fealty to ancient customs, including arranged marriages and a mysterious entity residing in a nearby pit that often demands a blood sacrifice. When she’s set to be betrothed to a boy despite her previous sexual activity, it angers the gods, who mark her for death by impelling their cypher (Sean Bridgers) to inscribe her face on a jug. In the interest of self-preservation, Ada buries the jug, which only exacerbates the situation.
If Jug Face were just content with that premise (which is already a mouthful), it might have been a deeply unsettling look into irrational witch-hunts and society’s tendency towards punishing promiscuous young women for simply exploring their own sexuality. In that respect, it’s interesting how Crawford hovers around producer Lucky McKee’s typical preoccupations by exploiting the horror of the female experience within society. In Ada, he’s crafted a deeply compelling and sympathetic figure, and Carter establishes herself as a magnetic lead: something about her marks her as simultaneously tragic, desperate, and resolute in the face of the forces overwhelming her. Jug Face totally works as a disturbing story about a woman’s struggle against institutionalized misogyny, and it’s scary enough to think that her family and friends wouldn’t think twice about sacrificing her to appease their gods.
So why does Kinkle feel compelled to hurriedly confirm that the local legend is actually true? Rather than tease out the very grim possibility that everyone around her is dedicated to a screwy religion, the film has Ada literally haunted by the spirits of past victims who dared to defy the gods. Cursed to roam the woods as disembodied specters, one of their kind clumsily intrudes into the film to explain the situation, thus demystifying and diffusing any ambiguity that might underpin the film. These intrusions are also lumbering on a visual level, as the brooding, serene proceedings yield to off-putting kinetic bursts to accentuate the supernatural presence. While Kinkle does refrain from completely unearthing the dark forces residing in the pit itself (choosing instead to only obliquely highlight the gory aftermath of their exploits), it’s an otherwise disappointing turn of events that feels too easy. Sometimes, “the devil made me do it” is a more terrifying explanation without an actual devil.
But what’s left provides a compelling enough drama thanks to the impressive cast surrounding Carter. Larry Fessenden is terrific as Ava’s father, a real sinister piece of work hiding behind a country-genteel veneer. He’s equally capable of showing sympathy towards Ada and callously slitting the throat of the next sacrifice victim, sometimes within the span of a couple of scenes. Somehow, he’s not as awful as his wife (Sean Young), a perpetually boozing, abusive matriarch who terrorizes her daughter with threats of violence. Such domestic squalor is a painful reality for Ava—and this is not to mention the incest angle that only serves to add to the overall griminess of the piece. Her only refuge from these sordid affairs is Dwai (Bridgers), the kind-hearted simpleton who molds the jug faces for the dark gods; the two feel like the only sane people in an insane world, and their struggle to survive and escape through their unusual bond functions well enough.
If only Kinkle had resisted the urge to muddy the thematic waters here—again, Jug Face feels like it could have been even more intriguing by embracing ambiguity. As it is, it makes Ava culpable in the destruction of this community: had she not attempted to skirt around the gods’ demands and yielded to her own oblivion, the society could have continued unabated with less bloodshed, a notion that certainly reinforces the institutionalized mistreatment of women yet practically lets the institution off the hook. Can we say this community is deranged when their system of ritual sacrifice works?
Admittedly, Jug Face still breeds moral quandaries, and it’s effectively couched in a disturbing, backwoods horror aesthetic that hovers over the proceedings—it’s just that it almost feels too simplistic and obvious in its treatment of its concept and themes. Still, I like where Kinkle’s head is, particularly as it pertains to employing horror to highlight the plight of women—the genre is always more fascinating when it has something to say about girls instead of just offering them up as a sacrifice to the bloodthirsty gods sitting in the audience. Rent it!
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