United States. Directed by Ti West, 2013. Starring AJ Bowen, Joe Swanberg, Gene Jones, Kentucker Audley, Amy Siemetz. 95 minutes.
Ti West burst onto the scene in 2009 with the brilliant House of the Devil (well…not really, but we don’t talk about Cabin Fever 2) but his subsequent work–the pretty-but-pointless Innkeepers and lackluster contributions to VHS and The ABCs of Death–has largely failed to live up to expectations. That all changes with The Sacrament.
West is a consummate stylist but in a stroke of irony, he finds his return to form in the guise of found-footage. AJ Bowen, Joe Swanberg, and Kentucky Audley star as a trio of photojournalists who journey to Africa to make a documentary for VICE. The subject is Audley’s sister (Amy Siemetz), who dropped out of Western society, joined with several hundred like-minded souls and helped build a commune named Eden Parish in the African forest. Led by “Father,” real name Charles Anderson Reed (Gene Jones), the Parish’s residents describe it as the perfect place to get away from the bullshit that clogs modern civilization, get back to nature and get closer to God. But the Parish has a dark side, one that makes itself known with a vengeance when a series of incidents escalates beyond Father’s control.
Drawing on pop-cultural memories of religious fervor gone tragically wrong, West paints a harrowing portrait of fanaticism and brainwashing. Nobody familiar with his work will be surprised to hear that he’s more than happy to deliver scenes of horror and violence, but the scariest thing about The Sacrament is how, well, normal everybody seems. Siemetz and her fellow-travelers talk a bit more about God and the corrupting influence of capitalism a bit more than most, but their demeanors are calm and cheerful, if a bit aloof–none of yer picket-sign doomsday ranting here. Even Father, with his silver tongue and easy charm, seems more like a retired insurance salesman than a preacher. We have seen the face of the cultist, and it’s disturbingly familiar.
West’s dedication to his thesis has garnered criticism from some corners: once you figure out where The Sacrament is going–and believe me, it’s not hard–you know exactly where and how it will end. I admire West for not pulling a third-act twist out of his ass just for the sake of it; I found that refreshing, just as I found the lack of bullshit and pretension he brought to House of the Devil refreshing. At any rate, this is one of those movies that’s more about the journey than the destination, and it’s a fascinating journey. West keeps the tension high and the pacing taut, and the inevitable progression of events feels like a tragedy that can’t be averted, not a series of lazy, predictable plot points. And I was impressed with how skillfully he was able to use the found-footage tropes to build suspense.
Bowen, Swanberg, and Siemetz have been working together for so long now (they’re part of Adam Wingard’s rep company) that they’re like a well-oiled machine; they’re comfortable enough that they know exactly how to play off each other. Audley turns in a good performance as well. But Gene Jones owns this movie lock, stock and barrel. He needs to, obviously–if the audience can’t buy how dozens, hundreds of people could be drawn in by Father’s aw-shucks down-country good-ole-boy demeanor, they won’t buy the rest of the film no matter how good his castmates are. Jones delivers the goods and then some, and manages to do so without going over the top, an easy-to-make but potentially fatal mistake.
With The Sacrament, Ti West takes an intense journey to the heart of darkness, and the truth he finds there will disturb and haunt audiences for years to come.