Reviewed for the Miami International Film Festival 2014.
“The only peace left for us is in death,” whispers Gene Jones in his role as Father of Eden Parish, coaxing every man and woman under his rule to surrender to death by drinking poisoned punch. If that sounds familiar, it’s because the events that took place at Jonestown in the seventies were the great inspiration for Ti West’s The Sacrament.
As near-impossible as it is to take a bunch of reporters from VICE Magazine seriously, The Sacrament manages to side-step any pitfalls that its almost satirical set-up could establish. Mockumentary films tend to lean towards comedy, so watching AJ Bowen, Joe Swanberg, and Kentucker Audley as this sort of misfit bunch of VICE reporters is the perfect start. It’s a smart little mislead that gives way to an incredibly grim work, as the men head off to visit one of their siblings (Amy Seimetz) at what they believe is a rehab retreat. Alas, Eden Parish is anything but your average rehab locale; it’s a community of folks who wanted to get away from it all. Sure, no reporters would want to live there, but it’s easy to see how someone whose life wasn’t going so well might find this a convenient retreat from the world. That sort of innocence is just another part of the mislead, but not one that the filmmaker is playing on the audience. Eden Parish has been fed to most of these people, but not everything is quite as innocuous as it seems on camera.
One can see that West realizes the gravity of the situation that his characters have been placed into. There’s little doubt in the mind of anyone watching that this film amounts to more than a lazy “drink the Kool-Aid” reference. It measures the impact of its grizzly third act — chock full of some gruesome imagery of people meeting their demise — by slowly and surely building up tension and creating characters that are worth giving a shit about. A constant in West’s filmography is meticulous pacing to establish itself before delivering a gut punch. Not only are these three VICE reporters immersing themselves in the community, West uses this concept of immersion to allow the audience to understand the position these people have found themselves in. Unlike most films with a premise that offers a “realistic” perspective of an event though, The Sacrament avoids most conventional found-footage tropes. A surprising amount of it is shot as professionally as possible, adding an extra air of truth to the reporter angle, and the he camera so rarely swings about Cloverfield-style that one can be thankful. It happens occasionally, but not nearly enough to warrant some dramamine before buying your ticket.
Those expecting jump scares or objects popping into frame all of a sudden, as so much found-footage films tend to have, will find disappointment though, as West sticks to his usual routine of creating an atmosphere rather than giving every bit of fear away before the final act. As much as a good surprise can catch you off guard in the best of ways, the notion of this man who can move an audience of people to do his will — even if that means taking their own lives — is far more horrifying. In fact, before The Sacrament hits its grand final stride of horror, the most unsettling scene is an interview that Sam and Father have in front of every member of Eden Parish. It’s astounding to see how these people react to a man who’s simply speaking as a well-trained politician might; to think about how easily an event like this could happen, to know that it has happened, is just plain sickening.
It’s possible that Ti West’s film could be considered less impacting to those who know the history of what happened with Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project. And yet, the knowledge that this smaller scale film — with a death toll in the hundreds compared to over nine hundred — is based on a situation that was so much larger is just part of its harrowing nature. As much as The Sacrament is rough around the edges, it’s still a film that makes for a very different, and very necessary, horror experience.
Directed by Ti West; written by Ti West; starring AJ Bowen, Joe Swanberg, Kentucker Audley, Amy Seimetz, Kate Lyn Sheil, Donna Biscoe, and Gene Jones; 95 minutes.