Studio: Magnet Releasing
Director: Ti West
Writer: Ti West
Producer: Christopher Woodrow, Molly Conners, Eli Roth, Jacob Jaffke, Peter Phok
Stars: Joe Swanberg, AJ Bowen, Kentucker Audley, Amy Seimetz, Gene Jones, Donna Biscoe, Kate Lyn Sheil
A journalist investigating a religious commune discovers that their leader may be preparing his cult for a deadly ritual.
Hindsight creates a strange psychological effect on a viewer who watches a cult documentary after the group’s warped belief system has already produced fatal results. Stanley Nelson’s spellbinding 2006 doc “Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple” includes a bevy of seemingly innocuous footage featuring Jim Jones’ followers milling about their Guyanese commune while performing mundane daily activities. Framed with the mental image of 900 people lying face down in the dirt after drinking cyanide-laced Flavor Aid however, and their unknowing smiles take an ominously eerie tone that stems from the audience’s awareness of the awful fate coming to take their blissfully unsuspecting lives.
Marshall Applewhite’s Heaven’s Gate is another example. Had his misguided followers not committed mass suicide, watching pre-tragedy footage of his cult willingly expressing support for the idea of Jesus being an alien and rechristening themselves with silly names like Do and Ti would seem comically absurd. But watch it while carrying the knowledge that their story ends with 39 dead bodies draped in purple cloth and matching sneakers, and their otherwise harmless convictions about spaceships and comet tails is suddenly not so humorous.
Ti West’s thriller “The Sacrament” is captures some of that same uneasy feeling in its presentation. Those who go into “The Sacrament” with little foreknowledge of the film or background on its real-life inspiration will have a harder time experiencing the slow-building dread that underscores first act introductions. It is even fair to argue that the unsettling seed is planted more by an informed viewer’s mind than by the movie itself. Still, mentally jumping ahead to what will almost assuredly be a deadly conclusion gives shots of basketball games, vegetable farming, and hippie country living a tinge of sadness, sympathy, and terror.
Writer/director Ti West objects to labeling “The Sacrament” as “found footage,” though he also claims “House of the Devil” is just a period piece and not an homage to the 80’s, which is not exactly true either. What he likely means is that although “The Sacrament” is stylized as first-person footage shot by an investigative journalism duo, its details are not meant to be taken literally as a fictional frame.
Cuts to shots from cameras that shouldn’t exist or that are held by hands that don’t make sense are just some of the cheats employed. Really, the primary purpose is to deliver an immersive viewing experience. Anyone poking holes in the impossibility of how it might logically fit together as a faux documentary is not on the same page as West’s intention.
“The Sacrament” is a fictionalized, although mostly historically accurate, reimagining of the infamous 1978 Jonestown Massacre. For the uninitiated, it is the story of a relocated religious commune birthed from honest intentions of creating a socialist utopia whose demented leader corrupted the vision into one of unfounded paranoia and revolutionary suicide.
As central as the character of “Father” is to the story, it is interesting that he is deliberately not the film’s chief focus. “The Sacrament” could have made Father’s influential evil singularly important in the way that dramatizations of the Tate-LaBianca murders spotlight Charles Manson over everything else. Instead, West wants his audience to key into the fear felt by A.J. Bowen’s reporter, the desperation of disenchanted cult members, and the oppressive sadness drowning the entire setting in a sinister darkness.
Amy Seimetz is mesmerizing as cult member Caroline. She channels a precise nuance of believable intelligence that has enough of a fracture to make an unfortunate brainwashing appear just as plausible. Gene Jones, memorable from playing opposite Javier Bardem in the gas station coin flip scene of “No Country for Old Men,” is just as in tune to his cult leader persona. From Tyler Bates’ perfectly suited rhythms heightening the tension to the chilling moments of self-immolation and filicide, all of the talent on hand effectively combines to produce an engaging thriller.
Where interest wanes is in the absence of moments connecting the scenes with satisfying context. Motivations are missing regarding specifically why Father turns Eden Parish upside-down following the interlopers’ arrival, or what hidden secrets lurk behind locked doors.
Sadly, the same thing is true of Jonestown itself. Why guns fired without provocation and why 900 people died that day in 1978 are events that cannot have any understandable justification. There is no sense to be made from a senseless situation founded on hopelessness and confusion, after all.
While that harsh reality excuses the fact that there is no solid rationalization for what happened in Guyana, “The Sacrament” has a harder time skating by with that as a reason for its lack of fulfilling answers. Passive viewers without investment in the psychology behind the horror will find themselves disconnected from the tragedy and disappointed by the thin sinew tying the narrative together. But anyone able to conceptualize the horrifying history fueling the fiction may find “The Sacrament” almost as terrifying as the real thing.
Review Score: 75