On Sacred Ground dramatizes the corruption and protests surrounding the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL, occasionally referred to as the Bakken Pipeline). Directors Josh Tickell and Rebecca Tickell, who co-wrote the film with star William Mapother, wish to convey the struggles the First Nation peoples faced in trying to get their voices heard to oppose the pipeline. But they also know every issue has a bit of nuance, so even the oil company bigwigs aren’t painted with such broad strokes that they are cartoons. Does the drama maintain its grounded, realistic tone for its 86-minute runtime?
Military veteran Daniel (Mapother) is now a freelance journalist. Due to his more conservative voice and desperate need for money, as his wife Julie (Amy Smart) is pregnant, Ricky (Frances Fisher) hires him to write a more positive spin on the DAPL. Daniel flies out to meet company liaison Elliot (David Arquette), who gets the journalist talking with the people building the pipeline. After that, the journalist enters Sioux territory to understand their point of view.
As the days wear on, Daniel hears of the struggles the First Nation people face, including the patient Mika (Kerry Knuppe), and comes to understand what the DAPL truly means. On the homefront, the journalist becomes so ensnared in his reporting he fails to maintain contact with his wife. Will Daniel have a change of heart, or is his need for a nest egg for his family worth more than the Natives’ lives?
On Sacred Ground garnered quite the ensemble cast. While not a household name, Mapother has been steadily working on television and in the pictures for decades. As such, he has a great sense of how to believably play complex emotions. This means all watching will understand and empathize with Daniel’s internal conflict.
“…Daniel hears of the struggles the First Nation people face…”
Of course, he is surrounded by an impressive group. Arquette sheds his comedic persona for a meaty, slightly slimy character. He absolutely nails the role. The ever-reliable Fisher only has a few scenes throughout but makes a significant impact. Smart continues her successful run in smaller movies, bringing much-needed heart and warmth to Daniel’s life. Knuppe is fascinating as the de facto leader of the protests. She’s calm, collected, and captivating from her first scene to the last.
Beyond the cast, On Sacred Ground works because of the direction. The Tickells expound on their points by intercutting or overlaying graphics and headlines from the then-present. This is not only a visually interesting choice but also makes the themes more impactful as the real-world implications are not left to be pondered or dismissed by audiences. No, they are felt then and there. The filmmakers use subtle camera movements and zooms/pans to have viewers focus on the important little details, helping to flesh out the world.
Unfortunately, there is a problem. It comes when the motion picture has 10 or 15 minutes left. Without spoiling much, Daniel sees his life flash before his eyes, with several clips from earlier flashing across the frame. But Daniel also witnesses the vastness of space and a wormhole (?) and Julie swimming in clear water and just far too much. This sequence is unintentionally goofy and does not fit the tone of the rest of the story. The final few minutes revert back to the more grounded approach, which serves as a reminder of how heavy-hand and awkward that moment truly is.
Even still, On Sacred Ground is a fitting testament to those who put everything on the line to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline. The ensemble is superb, the direction is mostly excellent, and the script does the plight of First Nation peoples justice. While not perfect, Josh and Rebecca Tickell have crafted an important and timely film with a message that needs to be heeded sooner rather than later.
For more information, visit the On Sacred Ground official site.