The Sacrament (Ti West, 2014) – Writer/director Ti West has carved a place out for himself in the horror genre as a brilliant formulist whose exquisitely constructed and teasingly suspenseful movies House of ohe Devil and The Innkeepers offer genre fans all of the atmosphere and characterization that so many find lacking in contemporary genre fare. He’s a filmmaker who understands how to use film style and grammar to sneak under his audience’s skin rather than relying on easy shocks and gore. So, it comes as a bit of a surprise that his latest feature abandons his greatest gifts as a filmmaker for found footage schtick. At least, it feels that way until you see the movie. In many scenes, The Sacrament feels West’s most deeply disturbing directorial outing to date and that’s entirely because he ditches film formalism to let his scares slip out purely through his characters and the unsettling situations they find themselves trapped in.
The movie stars mumblecore and genre specialists AJ Bowen and Joe Swanberg as a pair of Vice journalists who travel to a secluded tropical island to film a documentary about a cult dubbed Eden Parish. One of their sisters (Amy Seimetz) recently joined up, describing it as a joyous commune that she wants her brother to show off to the world as an alternative lifestyle paradise. However, pretty much as soon as the reporters arrive, things feel wrong. The leader who everyone refers to as Father (Gene Jones) has more to say about self-promotion and self-aggrandizing than anything resembling a genuine humanist philosophy and rather quickly residents from his community start begging the filmmakers to help them escape.
If it sounds a lot like the Jonestown story, that’s because it is. West essentially retells the story from the perspective of journalists who spark the Kool-aid tragedy and that’s entirely appropriate given that there were journalists who showed up at Jonestown right as things turned south and their gut-wrenching story somehow never got a feature film treatment before now.
West’s rendition of this story never feels tasteless because he takes the time to present every character as a lost human and never settles for easy shocks. The most frightening element of the whole movie is undoubtedly Jones’ performance as the cult leader, delivered in calm and measured tones that never once mugs for evil. It’s all frighteningly believable because it is real and West heightens that reality through his found footage conceit that is more necessity than gimmick. It draws audiences in to the immediacy of the story and lets the performers and situations dictate the viewers’ emotional response rather than directorial handholding.
The film feels disturbingly real throughout thanks to impressively naturalistic performances from Jones, Bowen, Swanberg, and Seimetz whose background indie character driven movies carries over perfectly. No one on the cast or crew of The Sacrament treated the material as genre in a conventional sense. They created a drama that just happens to be terrifying because it depicts the most infamous and disturbing cult tragedy of the 20th century. It’s probably not West’s finest film simply because he deliberately ditches most of his directorial strengths, but it is further proof that West is a genuinely talented filmmaker working in genre because he loves it, not as profiteer or sleaze merchant (not that there’s anything wrong with top tier sleaze of course).
The Sacrament arrives on Blu-Ray in a very pleasing set. The transfer is top notch. Obviously, the deliberately ragged documentary aesthetic means that we’re not exactly talking about a revelatory Lawrence of Arabia style restoration, but the HD cameras West and is crew used aren’t exactly betamax so it looks and sounds great and some of the grisly details in the finale hit home hard. Special features a limited, but interesting. Essentially a 30 minute documentary was produced that covers all of the nuts and bolts information about the goals for the project and the production. Given all of the intelligent indie film veterans involved, there’s quite a bit of nice information here to discover (like how the tropical paradise retreat was shot in the fall in the middle of the US with added palm trees). Unfortunately, the doc has needlessly been split apart so that the bulk of the info comes in one nice 20-minute piece and then two needless five minute extensions that should have been included in the main doc. Companies need to stop pointlessly splitting up special features to make it seem like there’s more content on their discs. It’s pointless. Still, the doc is interesting, as is the feature length commentary with West and two of his actors, so there’s plenty of nice content here to supplement an excellent feature that was sadly ignored in its theatrical run and now deserves discovery at home. (Phil Brown)