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‘Immaculate’ Review: Sydney Sweeney Is a Revelation in Michael Mohan’s Magnificent Horror Creation

Lupita Nyong’o in “Us,” Toni Collette in “Hereditary” and now Sydney Sweeney in “Immaculate.” All are part of a small group of modern horror performances that grab you without ever letting go. While the genre might get overlooked when it comes to awards at the end of every year, all of these performers show they are the real deal. For Sweeney, it is more proof that, following films like the underseen drama “Clementine” and the minimalist thriller “Reality,” she is one of the most talented actors of her generation.

First rising to fame for her role in the HBO series “Euphoria,” it is now in “Immaculate” where she emerges, reborn, as a terrific screen presence who feels like she is only getting started with what she can do. Giving life to a horror vision that would not have nearly the same power and potency without her at the forefront of it, Sweeney has never been better than she is here. What a darkly beautiful yet brutal, bloody and bold film this is for her to wield.

The film, which had its World Premiere Tuesday at the Paramount Theater in Austin as part of the 2024 SXSW Film & TV Festival, is one that begins with a spectacular yet sinister opening. We see a woman trying to escape a convent under the cover of darkness. She steals some keys and manages to squeeze her way out through a chained gate before the hand of a nun pulls her back. The woman’s leg is brutally broken before she is buried alive, crying out in terror as the darkness of her final resting place consumes her.

We are then introduced to the young American expat Cecilia (Sweeney) as she tries to make a fresh start at this same remote convent hidden away in the Italian countryside. Unaware that anything may be awry, Cecilia just wants to give her life to her faith, as she believes God saved her when she nearly drowned as a child. As she soon discovers, the choice to come here may not have been entirely hers alone.

Just when it seems like she is getting used to the routine of this new life, Cecilia gets called in for questioning by the male leadership of the convent. We learn that she has become pregnant despite remaining a virgin (hence the title) and is put on a pedestal as a miracle. No longer does she have to do chores or worry about anything other than giving birth to this child. This doesn’t prove so easy, as her life has become defined by her existence as a vessel for all the hopes, dreams, and prayers of an entire community.

Just as dark forces seem to lurk in the night, the daytime where her every move is monitored and where she can no longer leave is just as chilling. Though still living amongst countless other people, it might as well be that she is being held in captivity in another realm she may never be free from.

Working from a script by Andrew Lobel, director Michael Mohan sets the table with a variety of distinct yet no less dynamic scares that are often defined by harsh, sudden cuts. While this could easily be reduced to being called “jump scares,” that doesn’t fully capture the way these are interwoven into the nightmarish world Cecilia is being steadily crushed by. Everything the film is doing cuts deeper because of the way it keeps building up the dread, relying on everything from a terrifying shot during a confession, as it seems distance itself is becoming unbound, to a sudden burst of violence just when you think things might finally be safe.

This is what ensures the subsequent shift to an experience that is far closer to body horror. Every detail of the convent, be it the throwaway conversation about someone being a scientist, to the glimpse of burns on an older woman’s feet, makes clear there is something immense going on here in terms of the years it has taken and the beliefs underpinning it. The more it sinks in that Cecilia has been chosen, the more suffocating the film becomes. What was once a place that may have offered a sliver of salvation is only about immense suffering. The film is genuinely scary just as it is shattering.

There is never a wasted moment as everything gets darker and darker. The musical score by Will Bates meshes with the stark visuals of cinematographer Elisha Christian perfectly. Bates and Christian previously collaborated with director Mohan on his 2021 film “Voyeurs,” which also starred Sweeney, though this feels like they’re all operating on another level. Christian, who has done great work on everything from “Columbus” to “The Night House,” is similarly outstanding with everything looking and feeling trapped in time. About midway through, a scene in a car that opens up to a field is made haunting in his hands.

Of course, all of this falls to Sweeney to carry the weight of everything on her shoulders. As both an actor and first-time producer she has a clear passion for the project that sees her really pushing herself. Not only does she do so with ease, capturing the overwhelming dread that crystallizes into grim determination, but she makes the entire film sing in the small moments. Right from when the members of the convent declare Cecilia is what they’ve been waiting for, you see the fear in Sweeney’s sharp, expressive eyes as she searches for a way to ensure she doesn’t become a dead miracle at the altar of their fanaticism.

As felt in one haunting shot of someone falling from a great height and the way the camera lingers on her face as she takes it all in, the devastation of death is becoming more present than life is here. To escape is to overcome an institution that seeks to control her and her body for its own ends.

This makes the last stretch of the film, where everything gets upended, all the more magnificent. Without tipping anything off, Cecilia must take matters into her own hands as it is clear she may soon be cast aside once she gives birth. It is in these moments where Sweeney achieves something transcendent, becoming almost unrecognizable. Some of this is because her face is increasingly covered in blood, but there is also a primal energy that she is able to channel to remarkable effect.

The final, unbroken shot brings everything together in one more crushing moment where Sweeney shouts to the rafters and silences any sense of hesitation that one might have had about her performance. Just as it was she who gave the film life, it is also she who has the same power to obliterate it with one final blow. How clear and true it rings.

Neon will release “Immaculate” in theaters on March 22.

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