Working with a larger budget than he has in the recent past and with Eli Roth in the producer’s chair, Ti West’s newest feature details the trappings of a Jonestown-esque cult. In the film, VICE Magazine fashion photographer Patrick (Kentucker Audley) attempts to visit his sister who has left the country to live in Eden Parish, a commune headed by a man colloquially referred to as “Father” (Gene Jones). Patrick is followed by a VICE documentary crew consisting of journalist Sam (AJ Bowen) and cameraman Jake (Joe Swanberg). The film succeeds in capturing the aesthetic of the journalism VICE has become known for, but ultimately fails to capitalize on it. Their sort of extreme tourism documentation is ripe for exploitation, but the film seems to revere the intrepid documentarians as one would if following Barbara Kopple or the Maysles brothers. There is even passing mention of the objectivity of VICE’s creative brand of journalism that is laughably sincere.
And so the crew enters the fortified Eden Parish commune with hesitancy as Father’s voice booms from a PA system and the inhabitants espouse typical cultish rhetoric. Following a brief interview with Father, the situation at Eden Parish quickly devolves into predictable terror as it becomes clear not everyone wishes to stay under Father’s supervision. What are perhaps the saving graces of the film however, are the phenomenal performance of Gene Jones as the disquietingly charismatic cult leader Father and the fantastic direction and editing of the film’s otherwise calculable climax.
Jones delivers an exceptional performance, displaying a quiet energy as he winks and nods to his congregation throughout his interview, eliciting canned responses from the rapt audience. It’s a difficult performance to land. We have to know why hundreds would abandon their homes and empty their coffers for this man and his vision, which necessitates both a warmth and a coldness to his actions. He must commit evil acts with complete sincerity and with the faith that he himself is an agent of benevolence. The charisma and charm it takes to have someone hand over their life is difficult to parse but Jones captures it beautifully and with a subtlety I believe few could have conjured.
But Jones’ speeches and discourse are about as good as “The Sacrament” ever really gets. For the most part the dialogue is rote and the found footage aspect of the film seems almost entirely unnecessary. The film also engages in numerous clichés. Sam repeatedly looks longingly at photos of his wife, who must be pregnant because why else would I want him to live. There is an obsession on behalf of the characters to continue documenting the situation despite desperate circumstances where it would likely be beneficial to stop hauling a large camera around. But because this is a found footage film I suppose that is a complaint that should simply be tossed aside, despite its logic.
When Ti West last stepped foot into this subgenre it was for the anthology “V/H/S,” an episodic horror film, and his entry was one of the weaker points of the film. And considering that there is only so many times the found footage depths can really be plunged (or I at least certainly hope this is true), it’s strange to see him returning to this well again. This is a director who had such success with strictly narrative cinema and was capable of such poise in a more typical format that I hope he returns to it soon.
“The House of the Devil,” Ti West’s 2009 horror feature, while perhaps not possessing any particular brilliance, was supremely competent and original. It was clearly made by a man not only familiar with the various tropes and eccentricities of the slasher, satanic, and haunted house films that dominated the 1970s and 80s, but by someone who knew how to exploit these with grace and subtlety while still creating a genuinely scary movie. And when this was followed up with the 2011 film “The Innkeepers” I became genuinely excited about this director. It became clear that West was a filmmaker that knew where and when to make his move, capable of building an atmosphere of tension and paranoia without overplaying his hand. So when these are followed with a film so uncharacteristically rushed as “The Sacrament,” it makes me wonder what happened to the director that possessed such a knack for pastiche and orchestration.
It really seems like “The Sacrament” was a paint-by-numbers attempt at capturing a terrifying event like that at Jonestown. There was no moment of the film during which I was surprised by its reveals or markedly frightened by its depictions. Though the centerpiece of the film is quite disturbing in its portrayal, its predictability almost outweighs its brutality. But up until this point the film is hurried, rushing to show you what is next without really pausing to fully establish just how creepy it would be living in a cult. And when it does attempt to display this aspect, it does so by direct to-camera addresses. The conventions of found footage are such that they tend to work against a director like Ti West who possesses an eye for establishment, favoring a heavy hand and a lead foot over a slight gesture. So what we are left with is an obvious, shallow film about a documentary crew trying to survive when we should have a film about why so many traveled up the river to live with Kurtz, and just how frightening it is to be under complete control of a man and never really know it.
June 6, 2014 (limited)
1 hr. 35 min.
Joe Swanberg, Amy Seimetz, AJ Bowen, Kentucker Audley, and Gene Jones