Indie horror darling Ti West branches out somewhat with The Sacrament, a fictionalized Vice Magazine styled fount footage retelling of The Jonestown Massacre, and for the most part it works wonderfully. It’s certainly creepy, intense, and intellectually interesting, but the film can’t entirely sustain its intriguing tone.
Vice journalist Sam (AJ Bowen) and his cameraman Jake (Joe Swanberg) have been invited to the cult enclave of Eden Parish to prove that Sam’s sister (Amy Seimetz) isn’t in any danger. After making their way through various stages of heavily armed checkpoints en route to the secret commune, Sam and Jake are granted an audience (literally) with the community’s enigmatic and distressingly cool headed leader (Gene Jones). Initially things seem distressing, but there are a lot of things that seem alright about Eden Parish. Obviously, it will all turn out to be wrong and things will get horrifying in swift fashion.
West wisely takes the “first person sourced documentary” style of his film to logical places for the most part, choosing to make a few wise points along the way. The people of Eden Parish, and particularly Jones’ exemplary portrayal of the sect’s father figure, aren’t caricatures. They’re flesh and blood human beings that believe in something different. When put into opposition of Sam and Jake’s more alpha minded journalists, it’s easy to see how the people of Eden Parish can feel cornered and scared by the outside world. It outlines the reasons why someone would join a cult in the first place with very little judgment, which makes the film’s inevitable conclusion all the more terrifying in the long run. By extension, the film also becomes a prescient open critique of the Vice style of embedded journalism and how it can skew a story to a point where things can unwittingly turn tragic just by being “open and accountable.”
The problem with West, and it has been a problem with his other features The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers, is that he really doesn’t quite know how to end a film just yet. Both of those films have moments where the film launches headlong into the climax almost with a snap of the fingers that suggests everything needs to wrap up in a hurry. While it worked for those films overall, here it’s a glaring dropping of the ball. It’s not that the climactic massacre (and let’s be honest that it’s telegraphed WAY in advance in the film and this isn’t a spoiler) isn’t well done, but that you can literally pinpoint the moment when the film just kind of gives up any pretense of being smart and simply goes in for the kill. It stops feeling unnervingly gritty and it turns into just another horror movie. Considering West’s films have always never really felt expressly like horror movies and he’s on such a great track for this one (even with a found footage framing), the last 20 minutes are a huge letdown.
While the film might be West’s most disappointing effort to date, it still isn’t a bad film. It actually includes the best scene he’s ever done: a brilliant staged interview that Father insists be conducted in front of a crowd of his followers and on a stage so they can all watch Sam squirm his way through his questions and all of the doubletalk and newspeak answers he receives in return. That scene will stick with viewers long after the film ends. It’s unwavering in its intellect and spookiness, and it proves that West is best when he’s at his quietest. It’s when he tries to shout that the film loses speed. It’s tightly constructed overall and it manages to be West’s most commercial and most thoughtful work at the same time. He just needs to find a way to marry the two a little better.