The Sacrament Movie Review
Written by Ted McCarthy
Released by Magnet Releasing
Written and directed by Ti West
2013, 95 minutes, Rated R
Released on May 1st, 2014 (VOD/iTunes) | June 6th, 2014 (Theatrical)
Joe Swanberg as Jake
AJ Bowen as Sam
Gene Jones as Father
Amy Seimetz as Caroline
People throw the word “cult” around a little too much, using it to describe basically any group of like-minded people. I’ve seen articles referring to people who use Crossfit every day as part of America’s “exercise cult.” You, as a reader of this, would likely be referred to by some as a cult member simply for being an avid horror fan. The majority of those who use the word don’t recognize its religious origins, nor its sometimes disturbing implications. True cult members dedicate themselves fully to a set of beliefs or ideals presented to them, setting aside anything and anyone that doesn’t share or condone them. While this isn’t necessarily always bad or harmful to anyone – I don’t want to generalize here – the idea that people can be almost brainwashed into accepting certain practices and orders without regard to personal morals or the well-being of themselves or others can be frightening.
Ti West uses the (fictional) cult commune of Eden Parish as the setting of his latest film, The Sacrament. In it, New York documentary filmmakers Sam (AJ Bowen), Patrick (Kentucker Audley) and Jake (Joe Swanberg) visit the commune to reunite Patrick with his sister Caroline (Amy Seimetz), a recovering drug addict. Eden Parish seems to be heaven on earth, with all the inhabitants speaking very highly of the lifestyle and, in particular, its founder and leader, whom they just call Father (Gene Jones). Charismatic, hospitable and articulate, Father explains his goal and desire to create and preside over a community of love and spirituality, free of hate, greed and violence. But as the filmmakers come to find out, the utopia has a sinister side.
The movie is filmed as a faux documentary through the lenses of Jake and Patrick’s cameras. Plenty of people are sick of the “found footage” film by now, but the format in and of itself doesn’t bother me. Unlike in the V/H/S films, though, here you do wonder why the camera is constantly rolling, even during what seems to just be mundane reactionary conversation between Sam and Jake. There is the obvious late-in-the-game explanation of “We need the world to know what happened here,” and while it’s a little more forgivable since these guys are professionals that have supposedly been in some pretty dangerous situations before, there’s still the expectation that anyone who isn’t certifiably insane or suicidal would drop the camera and peace out. It’s a nitpick I can get past if the story is good and engaging enough, and this one is. It bears a lot of stylistic similarities to The Last Exorcism (no surprise since Eli Roth produced both films), which also includesthe types of cuts and music that you don't get in movies like [Rec] or The Blair Witch Project. That makes it feel like more of a cinematic experience and less like the filmmakers were purporting it to be real, a marketing ploy that became irritating long ago.
The residents of Eden Parish are less akin to the Indonesian cult members in the “Safe Haven” segment of V/H/S 2 and more of an updated re-creation of the “Jonestown” cult that committed one of history’s largest mass suicides in Guyana in 1978. The similarities are so strong, in fact, that viewers who are familiar with the facts of the Jonestown massacre may find them distracting, as I did. West’s decision to borrow so heavily from the event certainly keeps the action grounded in reality, and is thus far more chilling than the balls-out supernatural bloodbath – as spectacular as that is – that concludes “Safe Haven.” But as eloquent and well delivered as Father’s climactic speech to his followers may be, the writing struck me as a tad lazy since it sounds like a simple rewording of Jim Jones’ infamous final “death tape.”
Acting is solid across the board, with “mumblegore” regulars Bowen, Swanson and particularly Seimetz (reuniting again after A Horrible Way to Die and You’re Next) all performing admirably. It is Jones, however, that’s the standout. He imbues his role of Father with equal parts empathy, insanity, charm, and menace, and it’s a mesmerizing performance that should (but likely won’t) garner a lot of awards attention.
Ti West has said that he plans to take a break from the horror genre for his next few projects, and while this may not reach the artistic heights of The House of the Devil, it’s a fine note to leave on (especially after “M is for Miscarriage” in The ABCs of Death – woof) and just might become a “cult classic”…I’m sorry, I had to get that one in there.