There is a palatable charm to Chad Crawford Kinkle’s Jug Face that doesn’t 100% jive with the subject matter of the film. The character of it, the texture, the way it all fits together, the way it doesn’t pander to ‘backwoods’ stereotypes all meld together to create a unique and endearing morality tale about fate. Strange, then, that the story involves a small rural community who worship a mysterious pit in the woods which, they believe, possesses healing powers among other things. They perform sacrifices for it, they refer to its ‘wants’ and ‘needs’ and they don’t blink an eye about any of it. Intermixed with this in this community are severe examples of incest, of cruelty and of baseless, empty fear. And still, it is a charming film.
The magical pit worship is just a normal part of these people’s lives and it is in this ‘normalcy’ that the film pulls of its earnest touch so well when it comes to its characters and the story. If any of this was played for spectacle, for humor then it wouldn’t hold a lot of weight and it certainly wouldn’t be interesting to say the least. But instead of spectacle, the story and the people who inhabit it are treated with a measure of respect and that makes a lot of difference.
The film centers around Ada, a teenager struggling with self-identity and a clear awareness of the outside world. She is, what seems to be, not much more than a bargaining chip to be used to ‘join’ with a male member of the community and make babies. Lauren Ashely Carter plays Ada with a fine touch. At moments you’ll find her frustrating and others you’ll find her pitiable but you’ll never find her uninteresting. This is partly because of her supporting characters and how these people all intertwine. The simple-minded Dawai (the excellent Sean Bridgers) who is the village ‘see-er’ that crafts jugs in a kind of trance state and, once completed, reveal the next one to be sacrificed to the pit. Her mother and father (played by Larry Fessenden and Sean Young) play the strong leaders in this village but are ultimately rendered small early on by the audience for their unflinching belief in the pit. Ada’s brother Jessaby who she’s been secretly sleeping with, they all complicate our view of Ada. Is she wise enough to see past all of it, or, does she not strive to see it? It is a great question that, again, stems from the environment and the people n Ada’s world.
Things start to go to hell in a hurry when she discovers she is the next face to show up on Dawai’s new pot and makes a snap decision to hide it and try to figure a way out. This small but important act sets about a chain reaction that puts everyone in town at risk and exposes the falsity to which they’ve conducted themselves in relation to their ‘god.’ This aspect of the film is just flat fascinating to watch because, again, it is played straight, sincere and almost thoughtful. There is a bit of a trap here, though, because as we start to root for Ada to get the hell out of this environment, we are also left with the idea that these people are not some massive ugly cult (take that any which way you want to) and don’t live in entirely closed off ways. They experience love, compassion and care in a less than expected ways. It creates a moral grey area that is complicated enough to make you question what is good and what is not with these people. Cut and dry, the message is not. I won’t go into how the pit reacts to Ada’s decision and how it all comes crashing to a head but the film, as a whole, is really intriguing and keeps you on edge all the way through.
This is all aided by an absolutely fantastic score by Sean Spillane which mixes elements of Paul Westerberg, Alan Lomax field recordings and sparse, gothic tonal reverb-laden fuzz that blend together to create a tattered sonic cloth the film could not do without. His work is really excellent and much like in Jeremy Gardner’s excellent The Battery, the music serves the needs of the film. It doesn’t distract, it doesn’t overdo it, it just seamlessly integrates into the DNA of the film in a beautiful and admirable way. Hats off to Spillane for a job well done.
While you won’t get too much in the punchy jump-scare territory with Jug Face, the tone and the tenseness of it are more appropriate to get right under your skin. The scenes of violence aren’t of the Feast or The Thing territory in terms of over-the-top on-screen gore and are, instead, very understated and quick. While some might argue this is a budgetary thing, I felt like long, lingering bloodiness would distract more than it would affect. That isn’t to say it isn’t bloody at times, it just isn’t the main attraction here. I guess what I’m saying here is that for many, Jug Face won’t be their cup of tea. The sparseness of the cinematography (which at times is just brilliant and lovely) is more arty than it is horror-y and the real horror of the thing comes more from how you think about blind faith and fate than what you’re shown on-screen. So while I know it won’t ring everyone’s bell, I found it to be a unique and interesting gothic fable well constructed, well acted and very compelling. I very much look forward to this team’s future work.