Review by Sean Boelman
Often, a major actor will star in a film as a show of support for its message. That seems to be the case with On Sacred Ground, an environmentalist movie that managed to assemble a shockingly decent cast despite being an utterly independent production — but it works better than it has any right to.
Inspired by true events that happened during the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline in 2016, the film follows a journalist who finds himself conflicted about the construction of the Pipeline when he gets to experience the frontlines from both sides. (To no one’s surprise, he ends up siding against the oil company.)
With a runtime under ninety minutes, the movie gets in, delivers its message, and gets out. It’s clear that filmmakers Josh and Rebecca Tickell are more interested in making a statement than they are anything else. Still, they (perhaps miraculously) manage to tell this true story in a compelling, affecting way.
Of course, the movie is very preachy with its messages, but they are messages that are so important and underheard that it is important for people to understand them — even if it takes being this direct. Both the environmentalist and anti-colonialist themes of the film are quite powerful, and a critical reminder of how tragic it is that these things still happen today.
Admittedly, the movie is a bit problematic in its particular lens. Telling the story through the perspective of a white outsider journalist was a choice — and the film doesn’t even seem moderately embarrassed that it’s clearly dealing in white saviorism. It might have been a bit more effective had the First Nations characters been more developed, but they are largely underwritten.
William Mapother does a pretty decent job in the leading role, even if the character isn’t anything special. His job is basically to react with horror to all of the atrocities being committed by the people around him, and he does a good job of selling the gravity of the situation. David Arquette is also in the movie as an oil executive, and he hams it up.
From a technical level, the film is a lot better than one would expect. Of course, the budget isn’t super high, and there are a few maudlin stylistic choices like the use of slow motion in a scene meant to be emotional, but the movie is largely shot in a way that feels intense without being emotionally manipulative or insensitive.
On Sacred Ground gets a lot of merit just for addressing an issue that, unfortunately, is still very much in need of discussion. Although it may be told from the perspective of a white savior, and it’s maudlin at times, it’s an effective conversation starter and will resonate with the audience that needs to hear it most.
On Sacred Ground hits theaters and VOD on January 13.