Due to its supernatural elements, grimy atmosphere, and high quotient of guts floating in mud puddles, Jug Face probably has no choice but to sell itself as a horror film. It really doesn't feel like one, though. The pleasure it imparts comes from interesting plot development and genuine character interactions rather than fear or tension. It's more of a moral drama disguised by horror imagery. It's also incredible and something you should not hesitate to watch if you get the chance.
The unfortunate thing about Jug Face (aside from that title - I kept accidentally calling it Jug Head. Then, as soon as I get over that mistake, I started accidentally calling it Jar Face, instead), is that there's not much that can be said about it without moving into spoiler territory. It's not that the film abounds with huge shockers, but I suspect Jug Face plays better when you don't know what to expect. Part of what's so cool about it rests within the premise itself, which the film continuously builds upon as it goes in such a way that just blurting it all out might ultimately do everyone a disservice.
Sticking to just the basics then, Jug Face takes place within a weird, close-knit backwoods community of folks who live at the mercy of some unseen supernatural entity that emanates from the bottom of a muddy pit in the middle of the forest. The monster or ghost or whatever it is can actually heal and bless these people if necessary but also requires a human sacrifice to keep from killing everyone. The requested sacrifices are communicated via pottery masks created by a man named Dawai (Sean Bridgers).
The film lays out most of this exposition with some phenomenal chalk animations over the opening credits. The wordless images don't offer much detail, but you get the basic idea, and the film does a good job of naturally filling in when needed.
The human story involves a young woman, Ada (Lauren Ashley Carter), who is pregnant with her brother's child and of course finds out that her face is on the next jug. Her attempts to evade ritualistic sacrifice end up having dire consequences for everyone else in the community.
Nothing about Jug Face plays quite like it sounds. Incest, for instance, normally seems like a taboo broken only to display a willingness to shock. Here it almost seems touching, and in the very least understandable. Rather than reveal moral repugnance, it illustrates the microscopic breadth of Ada's world. The only other potential partner she can look forward to in her community is an overweight mamma's boy. The idea that she'd get it on with her handsome brother, with whom she still shares a room, maybe isn't all that crazy.
Writer-director Chad Crawford Kinkle displays a strong knack for setting and atmosphere without the aid of many shorthand indicators. The community's backwoods isolation at times feels so pervasive and otherworldly that signs of modernity come as a shock. It doesn't seem possible that they could have trucks, filtered cigarettes, and ovens, and even when we see Ada and her father drive into town to sell moonshine, the outside world somehow remains firmly inaccessible.
Lauren Ashley Carter is great as Ada. Her pixie-like face displays just enough innocence and adolescence to evoke empathy for what would otherwise be a very unlikable character. But Jug Face's real star is Sean Bridgers as Dawai. Playing a subtler variation of the same kindly dullard he portrayed in Deadwood, Bridgers confronts the story's frequent horrors and openings for self-pity with stubborn but gentle pragmatism. Nearly all his lines have a weird ability to be both heartening and heartbreaking at the same time. Funny, too. This seriously might be one of my favorite characters of the year.
There's more, though. Sean Young appears as Ada's mom, played with unearned malice from the moment we see her. This initially seems like a tonal misstep, but as we get deeper into the film, her apparent hatred finds an interesting balance with the kindness and genuine care we find in Ada's father, played by Larry Fessenden, whose actions as community leader would make him the villain of any other film. As a family they almost make sense, and without ever saying anything, the film infers a lot more history regarding Sean Young's character than may at first be apparent.
Again, I don't want to say too much. This is a tiny film. It likely had a very small budget and just barely makes it to an 80 minute long running time. A lot goes into those 80 minutes, though. The film is in many ways skeletal, but can also feel robust within its small framework. Above all, it remains interesting throughout and never succumbs to simplicity. I loved it.