‘Immaculate’ Review: Sydney Sweeney Takes (Bloody) Aim at Being an Object of Worship

The first half of this movie has a point to make about oppression and exploitation dressed up as love. And point made, it swings confidently to bloody, sinewy body horror.

Sydney Sweeney in Immaculate. NEON

The Internet at large is very weird about Sydney Sweeney. For a while, she merely attracted the typical scrutiny and fixation of a magnetic young actor who is depicted in explicit sexual situations. It’s uncomfortable, but not unexpected. Over the past year or so, as the app formerly known as Twitter has been redesigned to amplify its ickiest users, Sydney and her body have become the subject of even more bizarre and uncomfortable discourse. Creepy regressive men have selected the blonde, blue-eyed Sweeney as their model of “true beauty,” the thing (in their eyes, surely, a “thing”) that you are allowed, even obligated to find sexy to combat the woke mind virus. It’s yet another layer to the Monroe-like obsession with which Sweeney has admitted an understandable difficulty. Unlike the late Norma Jean, however, Sweeney has platforms with which to assert her humanity, not only through interviews and social media but through her choice of projects. Immaculate, the eerie and bloody horror film of which she is both producer and star, feels directed squarely at the individuals and institutions that have made her an object of worship—emphasis on object.

Sign Up For Our Daily Newsletter

By clicking submit, you agree to our <a rel="nofollow noreferer" href="http://observermedia.com/terms">terms of service</a> and acknowledge we may use your information to send you emails, product samples, and promotions on this website and other properties. You can opt out anytime.

See all of our newsletters

IMMACULATE ★★★ (3/4 stars)
Directed by: Michael Mohan
Written by: Andrew Lobel
Starring: Sydney Sweeney, Álvaro Morte, Benedetta Porcaroli, Dora Romano, Giorgio Colangeli, Simona Tabasco
Running time: 89 mins.

Sweeney plays Sister Cecilia, a young Catholic novice from America who is recruited to a convent in Italy. Cecilia takes her vows without reservation, confident that God has a plan for her and that His path has led her here. That destiny appears to assert itself when Cecilia, a virgin, finds herself miraculously pregnant. Soon, her life in the convent, which already comes with an explicit vow of obedience, becomes even more dehumanizing. She is revered, praised, literally propped up as an idol, and yet completely without agency. All that matters is the baby she carries, the presumed second coming of Christ. Scared and isolated, Cecilia searches for answers about her pregnancy, her destiny, and the convent’s bizarre history.

Immaculate sets up an array of mysteries in its first act and provides the answers surprisingly quickly. The devilry afoot at the convent is fairly obvious from the outset, but Cecilia’s predicament is the sort that is scarier the more she and the audience learn about it. The monster being studied is the friendly, patronizing face of “gentle” oppression, of exploitation dressed up as love. The intellectual exercise of that idea is all but over by the midpoint, when Immaculate steers confidently into bloody, sinewy body horror.

Sydney Sweeney in Immaculate. NEON

Though this is director Michael Mohan’s first horror film, he understands what makes this sort of movie tick, establishing a peaceful sense of quiet and isolation and then turning that same atmosphere into the protagonist’s greatest adversary. The convent is idyllic, verdant, a little island outside of the modern world. It’s also a place where the slightest sound echoes down every hall, with a thousand shadowy little nooks and no means of escape. Mohan and sound designer Bryan Parker build a lot of tension around the relative loudness of small actions in quiet spaces. Crucially, Immaculate also breaks that tension with a few terrific, strategically placed laughs.

As thematically interesting as Immaculate is, the transparency of its plot leaves it feeling a bit thin. Dread is one of the most important tools in horror storytelling, but its equal opposite, misdirection, is largely missing here. The film runs a tight 89 minutes, and since the mystery is so frontloaded, it actually ends up feeling even shorter. The most entertaining characters, Cecilia’s fellow nuns Gwen (Benedetta Porcaroli) and Isabelle (Giulia Heathfield Di Renzi), get relatively little screen time, though this does serve to emphasize Cecilia’s growing isolation throughout the film. Still, in the age of the three-hour epic, a movie coming in on the short side is no mortal sin. 

Naturally, Immaculate’s success falls on the shoulders of Sydney Sweeney. Her performance itself is strong, sure, especially during the unhinged final minutes, but the film also gains so much subtext just from her being the star. Here’s a young woman who is casually treated like some sort of specimen, but in a way that she’s expected to find flattering. Sweeney once told The Hollywood Reporter that, despite her hit TV shows, she doesn’t feel that she can afford to take time off to start a family, and here she plays a young woman who is literally idolized, technically cared for, and whose reproductive faculties are outside of her control. There are and have been countless Hollywood actresses for whom this role would be particularly resonant, but for this moment, there’s no better person to tell this story than Sydney Sweeney. And, thankfully, she gets to tell it on her own terms.

Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.

‘Immaculate’ Review: Sydney Sweeney Takes (Bloody) Aim at Being an Object of Worship