United States. Directed by Phil Joanou, 2016. Starring Jessica Alba, Thomas Jane, Lily Rabe, Aleksa Palladino, Reid Scott. 93 minutes. 2/10
On the evening of November 18, 1978, more than 900 men, women and children died at the “Jonestown,” a commune in Guyana populated by members of an American cult, the Peoples Temple of the Disciples of Christ. They died on the orders of the cult’s founder and leader, Jim Jones, who was himself found dead of a gunshot wound, apparently self-inflicted. The incident would stand as the largest deliberate mass loss of American civilian life until the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Over thirty-five years later, the “Jonestown Massacre” casts a long shadow over American culture. Screenwriter Robert Ben Garant (best known as co-creator of the Night at the Museum franchise and member of the seminal ’90s sketch-comedy troupe the State) and director Phil Joanou draw heavily from the Jonestown legend for The Veil, with Jones-analogue Jim Jacobs (Thomas Jane) overseeing his cult’s murder-suicide in 1984. That incident had a single survivor: five-year-old Sarah Hope. Fast-forward to the modern-day, when the adult Sarah (Lily Rabe) joins aspiring filmmaker Maggie Price (Jessica Alba) on a trip to the cult’s long-abandoned compound, in a search for answers and closure, not just for Sarah but for Maggie, who has her own connection to the massacre.
This should sound terribly familiar, and not just in a “ripped from the headlines…of the late ’70s” way: Ti West’s 2013 film The Sacrament also involved documentarians and a thinly-fictionalized portrayal of Jonestown, but the two films don’t have enough in common to justify calling The Veil a rip-off. While West’s film examines the cult dynamic from a psychological standpoint, Joanou and Ben Garant deliver a straightforward supernatural thriller.
The biggest difference between the two films is that The Sacrament is pretty good and The Veil just plain sucks. While Jim Jacobs’s doctrine of “unpinning” the human spirit from the body (which he overtly ties to the Crucifixion) intrigues, the filmmakers never actually do anything interesting with their ideas. By the film’s halfway mark, you discover you’re watching a typical jump-scare-laden slasher movie with standard-issue stupid characters and a moronic end-twist.
The cast—largely made up of attractive young specimens like Alba, Rabe, Aleksa Palladino (Boardwalk Empire), Jack De Sena (Avatar: The Last Airbender), Shannon Woodward (The Riches), and Reid Scott—do they best with what little they’re given, with varying results. Rabe, a veteran of the various iterations of American Horror Story, impresses the most: the one or two scenes that have any power do so largely because of her performance.
Jane counterbalances this with an over-the-top performance–imagine Jim Morrison as a Pentecostal tent-revival preacher and you’ll be close–that barely seems to belong in the same movie with the rest of the cast. I still haven’t decided whether it’s brilliant or idiotic. Or both. Regardless, he commands every scene with a potent combination of unfettered charisma and ridiculous accent. You don’t dare take your eyes off him.
Unfortunately, not even Jane’s diabolical acting can prop up this limp effort. There’s simply no compelling reason to bother with it.