A scene from THE SACRAMENT

The Sacrament

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.

The Sacrament poster

A scene from PROXY.

Proxy

United States. Directed by Zack Parker, 2013. Starring Alexia Rasmussen, Alexa Havins, Kristina Klebe. 122 minutes.

A hooded attacker knocks heavily pregnant Esther Woodhouse (Alexia Rasmussen) unconscious as she walks home from her OB/GYN’s office, and strikes her repeatedly in the stomach with a brick. Her baby dies by the time the ER doctors perform an emergency C-section.

At a support group meeting for grieving parents, Esther meets Melanie Michaels (Alexa Havins). Melanie shows her a picture of her husband and young son, killed by a drunk driver. The two become fast friends.

Some time later, Esther sees Melanie at a department store, claiming her son Peyton is missing. While security searches the store, Melanie goes outside to take another look for Peyton–who was never missing at all, merely waiting patiently in his mother’s car the entire time. Unnoticed by Melanie, Esther recognizes Peyton as the boy from the family picture.

This touches off a series of events that brings to light a web of lies that also involves Melanie’s husband (Joe Swanberg) and Esther’s lover (Kristina Klebe). Everyone has secrets they would prefer remain hidden, and blood will be spilled before all is revealed.

It ain’t easy being a hobbyist film critic. More than once I’ve walked away from a film, asking myself, How the Hell am I going to explain this to people? Sometimes it’s hard to describe a film without entering spoiler territory. (I had a friend once who recommended Donnie Darko to someone who’d never heard of it, explicitly telling her what it’s really about. I have rarely in my life wanted to punch someone so badly.) Other times a movie is just so weird that there’s no way to describe it without sounding insane.

Then there’s Proxy. If someone were to ask me “What is Proxy about?” I would probably curl up into a ball and whimper. What Proxy is about changes roughly every fifteen to twenty minutes. Some movies like to pull the rug out from under the audience. Proxy pulls out the rug, then it pulls out the floor, then the rest of the building. I get the feeling that if co-writer/director Zack Parker and co-writer Kevin Donner could pull the entire planet out from under you, they would.

This is an exceedingly difficult trick to pull off and it’s to Parker’s credit that it mostly works. More than once the film feels like it’s gone a twist too far. Forcing the audience to drastically rethink its attitude towards a character can be an effective plot point, but ask too often and you run the risk of the audience not caring who the characters really are. Proxy only approaches that point with one subplot, involving Joe Swanberg’s character. Red herrings can be useful, but this one takes up too much space in a film that’s on the longish side to begin with.

Other than that, the subplots lock together tightly and Parker milks every drop of suspense he can out of every scene–in fact, while it’s usually classed as a horror movie, Proxy is really more of a Hitchcockian suspense thriller, just gorier. (Which doesn’t mean that no horror can be found here: the attack on Esther was undoubtedly difficult to watch.) The pacing works but could probably use some tightening up, particularly the midsection, which tends to drag a little.

But it’s not the kind of film that could succeed solely based on its script or its direction. It requires strong performances to make it work, and strong performances are what it has. Esther is perhaps the most difficult character to get a handle on, because she’s essentially blank and shallow; Rasmussen brings enough dimension to the character to keep her from being dull. Havins commands all your attention whenever she’s on-screen. Swanberg delivers top-notch unhinged. Klebe, having the least-defined of the main roles, manages to transcend the Bull-Dyke clichés the script burdens her with.

Proxy is a fine effort that occasionally doesn’t work as well as it should. It could definitely do with some tightening up. But I enjoyed it, and I admire the filmmakers for thinking big and ambitiously.

Proxy poster