Film Review – The Sacrament
Ti West has gained notoriety in the horror genre. The House of the Devil (2009) and The Innkeepers (2011) has received a cult following, commended for their deliberate pacing and high levels of terror. I’ll admit to you now, dear reader, I do not fall into that camp. He’s undoubtedly talented as a storyteller, but I’ve never felt the zeal so many others have for his work. His latest, The Sacrament (2013), is an oddity all its own. Here we have West attempting to branch out and trying something different, but the execution stumbles. Like his previous films, this shows a writer/director with immense promise, but never hitting the right notes where they are needed.
One issue involves the story he’s chosen to tell. His depiction of a cult living in isolation will no doubt be compared to the tragedy in Guyana with the People’s Temple, Jim Jones, and Jonestown. West does not hide the similarities, all aspects of the camp – here named Eden Parish (Perish?) – bears striking similarities to Jonestown. Even the group’s leader, affectionately named “Father” (Gene Jones), is dressed to look just like Jim Jones, right down to the sunglasses. Nearly everything that took place in Guyana happens here, almost beat for beat. If West wanted to convey this story, why hide it behind such a thin veil? Why change the names if everything else stays the same?
A part of me thinks this was done to transport it into a modern setting. Jake (Joe Swanberg), Sam (AJ Bowen), and Patrick (Kentucker Audley) are three journalists in search of a hot story. One comes to them when Patrick’s sister Caroline (Amy Seimetz) writes to him explaining how she has given up her drug-filled past and has found salvation with Father and his congregation. In hopes of learning more about this place (and returning Caroline back home), the three decide to travel to the undisclosed site, interact with other members, and interview Father. They quickly realize this tranquil utopia is only a cover, hiding a much more menacing layer beneath. Who would’ve guessed?
West decides to shoot this through the “found footage” method, with characters holding the camera as the plot unfolds. Not only does this cause problems in terms of giving us necessary information (lots of shaky cam/night shots often showing just a black screen), but it is also inconsistent. The sense of “real time immediacy” doesn’t happen because the film is edited in a way that doesn’t allow that to happen. Two cameras are supposedly used, but clearly more were utilized to capture different angles (unless a character asked everyone to repeat what they just did so they can move to a different position). As the action escalates, we start noticing the character holding the camera is acting as a witness instead of a participant. If you were filming a friend who all of sudden found themselves in danger, would you try to help them, or would you continue to shoot so you can get a perfectly timed facial expression?
The technique is unnecessary. While I am not the biggest fan of his previous work, I do admire West’s ability to generate atmosphere. He knows how to create dread with subtlety. That can be sensed almost immediately here. A peaceful community surrounded by armed security guards, certain members with worried looks, a gesture or saying that is slightly off, etc. West builds upon these little hints, pointing toward what is about to come. However, the style undercuts these red flags. Because the structure is inconsistent, shifting perspective with heavy cuts, it distracts from what should be coming across. For example, the best scene of the film is the interview Sam has with Father. Gene Jones has the most memorable performance, creepy with his ominous sensibility. I especially liked how he would acknowledge Sam without even looking at him. Notice how the scene is shot: back and forth, with a steady frame holding both actors in place. Why focus on Sam’s reaction? Because cinematically, it amplifies the words spoken by Father. While a good scene, it contradicts the “documentary” effect West is going for. It feels staged instead of spontaneous.
The second half delves into routine horror clichés, with characters making dumb mistakes that leave us shaking our heads. Through all this, the worst thing about The Sacrament was how unapologetically exploitative it was toward the material. Something doesn’t sit right with how West took the real-life disaster of Jonestown, and molded it into an undeveloped horror/thriller. Character traits remained on a surface level, and what development we did get was washed away quickly. If one is interested, I suggest instead watching Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones (1980) a television movie featuring a terrifying performance by Powers Boothe in the central role. That does more in illustrating the evil of human nature, without the disruption of filmmaking gimmicks. Ti West has all the skills to make a great movie, but so far, he has yet to make one.