May 2, 2014
Kentucker Audley as Patrick
AJ Bowen as Sam
Joe Swanberg as Jake
Amy Seimetz as Caroline
Gene Jones as Father
The Sacrament is a departure from Ti West’s previous films as he takes on religious cults in a movie that can’t decide if it’s found footage or not. Either way, it’s far from his best work.
Ti West has been one of the names to look out for in horror circles since he released the excellent The House of the Devil in 2009. His follow-up feature The Innkeepers solidified him as a director with a keen sense of building tension and atmosphere to tremendous levels without resorting to cheap scares. After having fun with a couple of short pieces in V/H/S andThe ABCs of Death west returns to feature length with The Sacrament. While very different in scope and style to his previous works it features that same minimalist slow burn of tension he has become known for. However with such a different style of film, has West overreached a little far or conversely is he playing it safe?
Photographer Patrick receives a letter from his sister. Having not heard from her for some time and with a history of addiction she has seemingly found peace as part of a commune. First based in rural Massachusetts, the members of this commune sold all of their worldly possessions and moved to an undisclosed country to build their own place entirely off the grid. Patrick is friends with Sam who works as a reporter for Vice and he thinks it would be a great idea to visit this commune and report on it for his employers. So with another Vice staff person, Jake, they take their cameras and venture out into the unknown. So remote that it can only be accessed via helicopter the three men are dropped off in a clearing where they are met by men with guns. Having only been expecting to see Patrick arrive they are justifiably rattled by his companions but eventually all three are allowed into Eden Parish. A totally self-sufficient rural village built by the church members themselves, Sam and Jake are left to wander and talk to some of the folk living there while Patrick catches up with his sister. As night draws in the men are given the chance to interview “Father”, the leader of this commune. A charismatic man who is treated like a celebrity by his parishioners, it becomes obvious that not is all that it seems and that this man is not simply a spiritual leader but a far more insidious presence.
Ti West has found another way to keep his audience in the dark for as long as possible before the inevitable gut punch and though he might disagree, it’s through found footage. With photographer Patrick separated from his two friends for a lot of the film, all that we see is from the viewpoint of Sam and Jake. From the beginning it is obvious that nothing is as it seems at Eden Parish and while Sam and Jake are at first pleasantly surprised at what they find things start to become more sketchy as the night wears on. Gene Jones is a tremendous presence as “Father”, the charismatic leader of this commune who uses platitudes and pseudo-spiritual claptrap to inspire his congregation and also to avoid having to answer any questions. The cover is partially pulled back by these two curious journalists as they witness an incredibly eerie scene of the camp members all held under the thrall of a song almost as if they’re in a trance. We are as much at a loss as the reporters as they struggle to comprehend what is happening in this place, but it’s definitely not good. Amy Seimetz also excels as Caroline, the sister who puts a perky and inviting face on when need be but as things escalate her facade begins to break. Those who know of Jim Jones and the Jonestown Massacre in Guyana, South America back in 1978 will not be too surprised as to where the story takes us. “Father” is more or less a fictionalized version of Jim Jones even down to the sunglasses and his “illnesses” and in fact the less you know about the real life Jonestown story the better. This is not a film that will give you much of an idea as to why the people of Eden Parish do what they do, only the terrible aftermath is for sure.
This leaves the film a little bit of a mixed bag. Certainly if you watch The Sacrament to gain insight into the way cults work, you will not glean very much and might be better off watching the likes ofTicket to Heaven or Martha Marcy May Marlene. This film is about dropping you into the middle of a volcano not knowing when or if it is going to erupt. Unfortunately this is where Ti West’s storytelling falls down on the job just a little. Given that we are supposed to be viewing this as a Vice exposé on “Father” and his activities, the reporters don’t do much reporting. We are treated to an intro specifically made to look like the introduction to a Vice piece as Sam talks from Vice Headquarters in New York about their friend Patrick’s sister and the weird letter they received. The problem is that the remainder of the film, save for some occasional on-screen text introducing a person or a particular scene, we’re pretty much just watching raw recordings, found footage style. Any working journalist is not going to simply show the raw footage, add some music and call it a day. There would be voiceovers, interviews with experts, family members, ex-cult members etc. The experience of Eden Parish would be the foundation for an incredible story about a religious cult, instead the film feels more like The Last Exorcism with a much less terrible ending.
To further confuse of Ti West’s intentions there’s a regular opening credit sequence with the actual actor’s names next to their character names and “written, edited and directed by Ti West” prominently displayed. What is this credit sequence supposed to tell the viewer? That Ti West doesn’t really take the movie seriously? That he doesn’t know how or doesn’t care to present this footage in a consistent way? Another minor gripe is the cast that while really good is made up mostly of members of this same small group of actors/writers/directors that all star in each-others’ movies. If you’ve seen V/H/S, You’re Next, A Horrible Way to Die or other movies from the likes of Ti West, Adam Wingard and friends then you’ll be quite familiar with a lot of the leading players here. If a mock documentary style was what was intended here having recognizable actors playing who are meant to be real people hurts believability. Found footage already asks for some suspension of belief but don’t push your luck. Overall the fact that the story is based very closely on a real person, that very little effort was put into making the film anything more than a glorified found footage movie and that the cast is filled with familiar faces suggests that perhaps Ti West really was playing it safe here.