A scene from PHOENIX.

Phoenix

Germany. Directed by Christian Petzold, 2014. Starring Nina Hoss, Roland Zehrfeld, Nina Kunzendorf. 98 minutes. 8/10

One of our favorite themes here at the Gallery is identity: what makes us who we are, the difference between who others think we are and who we really are, stuff like that. And you don’t need to be a doppelgänger thriller like Coherence or a philosophical mindfuck like The Skin I Live In to present an intriguing take on the subject. Case in point: the German post-war drama Phoenix.

Before World War II, Nelly Lenz (Nina Hoss) was a cabaret singer in Berlin. Having survived Aushwitz and undergone reconstructive surgery to repair the damage caused by a bullet wound to the face, she returns to the city she once called home, determined to reunite with her husband Johann (Roland Zehrfeld). When she finds him working at a nightclub in the American district, he doesn’t recognize her…but he does think she somewhat resembles the wife he believes dead. He enlists her in a scheme: the post-war Nelly will pose as the pre-war Nelly, so that Johann can claim her estate. Nelly agrees, but her friend Lene (Nina Kuzendorf) advises caution, claiming to have seen evidence that it was Johann who sold Nelly out to the Nazis in the first place…

Crucially, director Petzold (who also co-wrote, adapting a French novel) deals very little with flashback, leaving the viewer to speculate on the differences between the Nellys of the past and present. In Johann’s eyes, “Esther” doesn’t walk, talk, or wear makeup like the woman he married, and he must train her to take the place of the woman she doesn’t realize she actually is. But then again, the Nelly who entered Aushwitz isn’t the same one who left it. In a key scene, Nelly tells Lene she isn’t Jewish. I assume the camps eradicated that part of her identity.

Moreover, why doesn’t “Esther” tell Johann the truth? She defies Lene’s advice, insisting her husband still loves her, protesting his innocence of her friend’s accusations. But at the macro level, the Holocaust represented a vast betrayal by an entire nation against its own people. Perhaps that turned the trust that used to go unchallenged between a husband and wife becomes harder to regain as a result. Nelly tries to recapture a time before the war, for which her friend criticizes her. By contrast, Lene doesn’t even want to live in Germany anymore, constantly drawing plans for the two to emigrate to Palestine and the nascent Israeli state. (It may just be me, but I felt Petzold consistently implied deeper feelings on Lene’s part for Nelly.)

Petzold couches the story in the visual grammar of psychological thrillers and films noir, and comparisons to Hitchcock’s Vertigo abound, but Phoenix doesn’t really belong to either genre. That being said, he deploys that grammar effectively, particularly in the exterior shots of Berlin, a city divided and half-ruined, struggling to create a new version of itself, not quite assured of itself–much like the characters.

The ensemble digs for, and uncovers, the emotional truths behind their parts; particularly Hoss and Kunzendorf, but all the performances are excellent. The sorrowful, jazz-inflected score by Stefan Will (also incorporating elements of several songs of the era) sets the stage perfectly.

Phoenix is a stylish and insightful examination of the wounds left by tragedy, be it on an epic scale or a personal betrayal between two ordinary people. Psychological scars can’t be erased as easily as physical ones, as it turns out…not that we don’t already know that, but the film serves as a potent reminder. Highly recommended.

PHOENIX poster

Fantastic Fest 2015: Day Two

On day two: the quirky Dutch crime drama The Glorious Works of G.F. Zwaen; Darling, the latest psych-horror from the director of Pod; the highly-buzzed Green Room, starring Patrick Stewart and Anton Yelchin and directed by Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin, Murder Party); and more.

Continue reading “Fantastic Fest 2015: Day Two”

Queen of Earth

Queen of Earth

United States, 2015. Directed by Alex Ross Perry. Starring Elisabeth Moss, Katherine Waterston, Patrick Fugit, Kentucker Audley. 90 minutes.

If Alex Ross Perry’s Queen of Earth has a cornerstone, a centerpiece, a central scene that sums up its entire experience, it’s one that comes about fifteen minutes before the end of the film. Protagonist Catherine (Elisabeth Moss), fresh off her father’s suicide and longtime boyfriend James’s (Kentucker Audley) betrayal, has joined her friend Virginia (Katherine Waterston) at the latter’s family’s cabin for a week of solitude and relaxation. But the peace and serenity does nothing to slow the gradual disintegration of Catherine’s psyche; neither do the haunting memories of her visit last year with Virginia and James.

Finally, she snaps at Rich (Patrick Fugit), Virginia’s smug, self-satisfied jerk of a friend-with-benefits: “You click your tongue and you revel in the affairs of others,” she tells him. “You show up to fuck my best friend, and you pry into the lives of others to conceal how worthless and boring your own life is. I don’t deserve this. I just want to be left alone with the few people who are left in this world who are decent.” Then she twists the knife further: “You are worthless. You are weak and greedy and selfish, and you are the root of every problem; you are why depression exists.”

As powerful as the scene is, positioned toward the end, it’s a bit hard to reach. Watching Queen of Earth sometimes feels like being cut adrift in a vast sea of misanthropy with no sign of land. Earlier in the film, Catherine has a brief conversation with a neighbor in which he describes Virginia’s family as “terrible people,” two words which I could use to describe almost every character in the film. Even the judgmental and over-sensitive Catherine becomes hard to take after a while, and she’s the closest thing Perry offers to a sympathetic character. She and Virginia repeatedly describe each other as “best friends,” but they seem to do so out of habit more than genuine affection. Or maybe they simply don’t know how to be friends.

There’s more going on in Queen of Earth than unpleasant people making each other miserable. Perry tells his story slowly and deliberately, with some clear nods towards ’70s cinema and a tendency towards close-ups. Interpretation of behavior is the key to understanding how the characters see each other; what Catherine sees as Rich’s nosiness I initially saw as genuine curiosity, but Perry and Fugit gradually reveal Rich as exactly as awful as Catherine accuses him of being. Similarly, while James and Virginia both describe Catherine as “co-dependent,” this is not something that seems obvious in the scenes with James, and her unhealthy attitude toward her father can easily be written off as grief…at first.

While Perry’s script may be interesting (if often alienating) and his visuals breathtaking, Queen of Earth requires strong performances to work properly, and those are what he gets. It’s easy–too easy–to see the characters as bundles of self-important, self-righteous millennial stereotypes, but Moss and Waterston turn Catherine and Virginia into real people. Moss, in particular, is a revelation–I can readily believe she was in the throes of a nervous breakdown. Fugit and Audley aren’t quite as strong–but then again, neither are Rich and James. They’re present to define their partners, not exist as characters in their own right.

Still, I won’t deny I felt relieved at the end of Queen of Earth. The camera work may be lovely, the performances brave, but these are not characters I wanted to spend any more time with and I was glad to be rid of them.

Lindsay Burdge stars in THE MIDNIGHT SWIM

The Midnight Swim

United States. Directed by Sarah Adina Smith, 2014. Starring Lindsay Burdge, Jennifer Lafleur, Aleksa Palladino. 84 minutes.

Filmmaker Sarah Adina Smith takes a look at the complex family relationships between women in her feature-length début. Dr. Amelia Brooks disappears during a dive in the lake she lives near, the lake she spent much of her adult life studying and defending. Her body never found, she is presumed dead. Her daughters June (Lindsay Burdge), Annie (Jennifer Lafleur), and Isa (Aleksa Palladino, co-star of Boardwalk Empire and Halt and Catch Fire and singer of the indie-rock band Exitmusic), estranged from their mother and each other, return home to put her affairs in order, but each finds the environment–the town, the house, the memories, and of course, the lake itself–pulling at them in different ways. Especially June, who has her own obsession with the lake that claimed her mother’s life.

The Midnight Swim strikes me, first and foremost, as a somewhat existential character study, examining how women relate to each other as family members (half-sisters, in this case); a sort of female version of The Corridor, without the cosmic/Lovecraftian implications. The relationships take center stage and the film’s strongest, most memorable moments–June singing her mother’s favorite lullaby, leading into a re-enactment of a verbally abusive rant, for example, or a Spontaneous Stupid Dance set to “Free to Be…You and Me”–focus on the dynamic between the sisters and Amelia (the latter only ever seen on video, in the form of a “Save the Lake” political ad).

Smith’s script puts an emphasis on showing over telling, and she implies many of the characters’ defining traits instead of stating them outright (for example, brief comments Isa makes when discussing her sudden hook-up with June’s childhood crush suggests a history of bad, probably abusive, men). This generally works to the film’s advantage (except for one major semi-revelation toward the end of the film that really needed to come earlier). The performances are uniformly excellent, with Burdge, Lafleur, and Palladino having an easy chemistry with each other, and with Ross Partridge as the aforementioned crush.

However, while I wouldn’t call Midnight Swim an overt horror film, it does include elements that can only be described as supernatural, and much of film’s overall effect is, if not actually nightmarish, then dreamlike in an unsettling way. Unfortunately, while I appreciated some of these elements (the cinematography of several night scenes; Ellen Reid’s superb, discomfiting ambient score), I didn’t think they worked as well in the overall context of the film. Occasionally, Smith simply seems to be trying too hard to be strange or obscure. The best example is the final sequence, which, beautiful though it is, seems somewhat at odds with the rest of the movie.

Doing the film no favors is the film’s narrative structure, which, I must state with a heavy sigh, bases itself around a found-footage conceit. (June’s making a documentary, and her sisters seem content to let her record everything that goes on around her, except for the one token “turn the camera off” scene.) The format doesn’t add anything of value to the film, creates a level of disconnect between the characters and the audience (I very rarely see people holding video cameras in real life, so why is every third horror or indie film I watch about people who apparently have the damned things surgically grafted to their palms?) and makes the film’s c0founding final moments even less credible.

That all being said, when The Midnight Swim works it really works. I think I would have liked it better if it had jettisoned the weirder elements and was only about the family, but hey, that’s life.

THE MIDNIGHT SWIM poster

A scene from MANHUNTER.

Retro Review: Manhunter

United States. Directed by Michael Mann, 1986. Starring William Petersen, Dennis Farina, Kim Griest, Tom Noonan, Brian Cox, Stephen Lang, Joan Allen. 121 minutes.

Thomas Harris’s 1981 novel Red Dragon, the book that introduced the world to Dr. Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter, has already been filmed twice. There’s no better time to revisit the first of those movies–especially since early signs indicate that the back half of Hannibal’s upcoming third season will adapt the novel in some way, shape or form.

You probably know what the story is about, but just in case: ex-FBI agent Will Graham has a rare ability. He can analyze murder scenes in such a way that allows him to understand a murderer’s psychology and actually put himself in the killer’s place. Some years ago, he nearly died during the capture of notorious murderer Hannibal Lecktor (as it’s spelled here). Now Graham’s former boss calls him out of retirement to assist in the investigation of “the Tooth Fairy,” a serial killer preying on families in the American southeast. But in order to succeed, he needs to face Lecktor, once a brilliant psychiatrist–and a man who’s never lost interest in the man who caught him.

At the time of Manhunter’s production, the film’s screenwriter and director, Michael Mann, also served as executive producer of Miami Vice. That explains the brightly-lit interiors, too-expensive suits and too-expensive cars, the synth score by composer Michael Rubini and Philadelphia new wave act the Reds, and William Petersen’s beard. To be sure, Mann prefers a darker, less obviously glamorous aesthetic here than he did at his day job, but the two projects seem, in a visual sense, like two sides of the same coin. Audiences more familiar with the darker color palettes of the Anthony Hopkins films and the Hannibal series may find Manhunter’s look jarring, or even a little dated. It certainly took me a while to get used to it.

That being said, the mid-’80s styling doesn’t detract from the overall effect the film delivers. Mann is as good with emotional effect as he is with his visuals, and several key scenes (including one particularly memorable sequence featuring “In-a-Gadda-da-Vida”) burst to overflowing with tension. Plot tends to take a back-seat, and while Mann preserves most of the important plot beats of the novel, at a couple of points the astute viewer will notice gaps in the story, things that the film seems to foreshadow that never happen. (A great example of this is an action Lecktor takes after his first meeting with Graham, which those familiar with the novel will recognize as setting up an encounter toward the end of the story…which never actually happens in the film.)

When it comes to the performances, it’s easy to make the mistake of putting too much emphasis on Brian Cox’s Lecktor. Considering the attention Hopkins brought to the character, that’s certainly understandable–and without Hopkins, Manhunter might never have been picked from obscurity–but both Cox and Mann know that this isn’t Lecktor’s story (indeed, his role in the film’s plot is actually cut down from the novel) and he shouldn’t attempt to steal it. Accordingly, Cox’s performance is less flamboyant and more subtle than his successor’s, but thankfully it has a similar effect.

The real protagonist of Manhunter is Will Graham and future CSI star William Petersen’s turn in the role is nothing short of electrifying and commanding. He’s more stable than his successors, and when he intimidates his attitude is more tough than scary–more like “I’m going to kick your ass” than “I’m going to slit your throat while you sleep.” This is a bit out of keeping with Harris’s conception of the character but Petersen makes it work in what struck me as a very ’80s way.

This is Petersen’s show but the rest of the cast, including Dennis Farina as Jack Crawford, Will’s former boss at the FBI, and Tom Noonan as the killer, is excellent. The only dud is Steven Bauer, horribly miscast as slimy tabloid reporter Freddy Lounds.

Manhunter stands up as a solid psychological crime-thriller even when it looks and sounds a bit too much of its time, which is often. And it certainly stands up well on its own, apart from the infamy its second-string villain would ultimately acquire.

MANHUNTER poster

A scene from FAULTS.

Faults

United States. Directed by Riley Stearns, 2014. Starring Leland Orser, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Chris Ellis. 89 minutes.

We meet Ansel Roth (Leland Orser) as he pretends to pay for breakfast at a motel restaurant. “Pretends” because voucher he uses has already been redeemed. By Roth himself, it turns out–the manager remembers him from the evening before. When the staff attempts to forcibly eject Roth, he hunkers down, refusing on the grounds that he’s still eating, and shoveling ketchup into his mouth to make the point.

That’s Ansel Roth in a nutshell: broke, desperate, and something of a jerk. Once a respected psychologist and expert on cults and brainwashing, he fell on hard times after a cultist he “deprogrammed” committed suicide. But when a middle-aged couple approach him, asking for his help in rescuing their daughter Claire (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and the American remake of The Returned) from an apparently new cult named “Faults,” Roth sees a possible chance at redemption. Or, at least, a chance to pay the debt he owes his ex-manager.

Writer/director Riley Stearns places Roth’s history, bitterness, and desperation at the emotional center of Faults, a psychological thriller cut with a heavy dose of irony. The film primarily serves as a portrait of Roth’s psyche. Roth is undeniably pathetic and arrogant, but damned if I didn’t find myself sympathizing with him at a few points. Orser has built a career around playing characters existing in a seemingly perpetual state of pained anguish (SevenThe Guest); he’s well-suited to roles like Ansel Roth. Similarly, Winstead’s girl-next-door charm go a long way in counteracting the creepiness in Claire.

While Orser and Winstead dominate the film, each performance is memorable and there isn’t a dud in the cast; Jon Gries (as Roth’s effete manager), Lance Reddick (as a bolo-tie-wearing enforcer), Brian Ellis (as Claire’s father) and AJ Bowen (in a cameo as the brother of one of Roth’s “subjects”) all deserve special mention.

Despite the general darkness of the story, the film borders on comedy at times–particularly when Gries and Riddick are involved. But Stearns perfectly balances the quirky aspects of the story with the darker ones in much the same way a good Coen brothers black comedy does (and in a way that the Coens’ acolytes often miss). I also tip my hat to Stearns for slipping the big plot twist under my radar–by rights, I should have seen it coming ten miles away.

Faults is worth watching for Orser and Winstead’s performances alone, but its intensity and black streak of humor add to the enjoyment. A must-see for fans of Fargo and similar movies.

FAULTS

Alice Englert stars in IN FEAR.

In Fear

United Kingdom. Directed by Jeremy Lovering, 2013. Starring Alice Englert, Iain de Caestecker, Allen Leech. 85 minutes. 

Tom (Ian de Caestecker) and Lucy (Alice Englert) are heading up to Ireland for a weekend music festival. It’s their first trip together as a couple, and Tom booked a room at the secluded Kilairney House Hotel to mark the occasion. Problem is, they can’t seem to find the place: the signs contradict each other, the map is no help, and their cell-phone reception is poor. Weirder things begin to happen as day turns into night, and it soon becomes clear that someone is fucking with them. Who are they, and what do they want?

I’ll get the plot out of the way first, because it’s the weakest aspect of the production. The script, written by Jeremy Lovering (who also directed), is a familiar slice of middle-of-nowhere horror. This is not a film that remixes its tropes in new and novel ways; instead, it telegraphs early on what kind of movie it is, so once you’ve you know what you’re in for, you can adjust your expectations, settle in and enjoy. Lovering offers no surprises, and the one thing he offers that comes anywhere near to being a plot twist is so obvious that I’m not going to feel bad about spoiling it. This may seem a dire flaw in the production but it isn’t really. While the characters suffer from the occasional bout of Stupid Horror Movie Character Behavior Syndrome and the first act drags on a bit too long, Lovering keeps the beats coming at a steady pace so the suspense rarely lets up.

Plus, the other strengths of the film more than make up for the story. The performances are all very strong. The standout is Allen Leech, who plays Max, a young local who seems to know what’s going on. It will shock absolutely no one that Max turns out the villain of the piece, and he digs into the role with relish. Max is a sick sociopathic fuck who gets off on screwing with people’s lives, and Leech knows how to play the role and be the most memorable character in the film without going over the top and stealing scenes from the stars.

One of the things that comes from a story with a bad guy like Max is that the protagonists, almost by necessity, are less interesting as characters but Englert and De Caestecker have an easy chemistry with each other that compensates for that. In the past, I’ve been very cynical about the effect the widespread adoption of the Final Girl trope has had on the genre, but Englert embodies the grit, determination, relatability and charisma that made that archetype so powerful to begin with.

To top it all off, Lovering’s direction is excellent. The control he exerts over the physical environment amazed me; he makes the warren of barely-paved back-country roads feel constricting and claustrophobic during the daytime scenes and like an infinitely expansive labyrinth in the dark. He also brings a lot of atmosphere to the proceedings. There were one or two scenes where I don’t think his visual storytelling was coherent enough, but overall this is a fine début.

In Fear is the horror-movie equivalent of comfort food. That might not seem the most enthusiastic endorsement, but think of it this way: sometimes you’re in the mood to try something new, bold and different, and sometimes a taste of the familiar is exactly what you need. And that’s what the film provides: a classic story told well.

In Fear poster

Jesse Eisenberg and Jesse Eisenberg star in THE DOUBLE.

The Double

United Kingdom. Directed by Richard Ayoade, 2013. Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Mia Wasikowska, Wallace Shawn. 93 minutes.

About half an hour into the film, a long-haired, elderly gent wearing a tuxedo leans into a microphone and starts to croon. “I was born in east Virginia,” he sings, “North Carolina I did roam.” But the singer’s accent makes it clear that, wherever he’s from, it isn’t anywhere near Virginia. (He is, in fact, the Finnish rock star Ilkka Johannes “Danny” Lipsanen, of Danny and the Islanders.) The sequence is The Double in microcosm: it’s a film obsessed with artifice and content, whose words tell one story and its accent another.

Loosely adapted by director/co-writer Richard Ayoade from a Dostoyevsky novella, The Double stars Jesse Eisenberg as Simon James, a sad sack who lives and works in pretty much the same world that Brazil took place in. He lives across the street from his pretty co-worker Hannah (Mia Wasikowska), spying on her with a telescope. One evening, Hannah’s upstairs neighbor commits suicide. Soon afterward, a gentleman named James Simon takes a job with Simon’s employer and moves into the newly-vacated apartment. James, also played by Eisenberg, is Simon’s exact physical double, but is confident and charming while Simon is meek and forgettable. Can Simon stop James from rudely ejecting him from his own life?

It doesn’t take a Media Studies major to work out that much of this story works on a metaphorical level, and I think that’s part of my problem with it. The Double is clever, yes–one expects nothing less of Ayoade, who, although better known as an actor (The IT Crowd), is also a co-creator of Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, and is part of a clique whose members are responsible for The Mighty BooshSnuff Box, and Sightseers. But too often “clever” becomes “too clever for its own good.”

I desperately wanted to engage with the film because, of course, I see a lot of myself in Simon James. I expect much of the audience will share that, and I’m dead certain Ayoade knows it. Yet he keeps us at a constant remove from the story and the characters, through the characters’ sheer unlikeability (even Hannah turns out to be a twit), through the obvious falseness of the world-building, and…

Here I must admit a personal prejudice, something that I just can’t get past. Brazil–a film I have worked very hard not to compare The Double to, and mostly succeeded–largely works for me because I can see a sort of Everyman in Jonathan Pryce’s performance, despite Sam Lowry’s creepier tendencies and mommy issues. Pryce can disappear into the role. Jesse Eisenberg doesn’t disappear into roles; you’re never not aware you’re watching him. (Yes, even in The Social Network, which largely works not by turning Eisenberg into Mark Zuckerberg, but turning Zuckerberg into Eisenberg.)

This especially applies to his performance as James: by barely modulating Simon’s personality and mannerisms, he turns into someone everyone adores, while the audience doesn’t see that much of a difference. The audience is not going to buy Eisenberg (or at least this particular version of Eisenberg) as a charismatic womanizer. And once again, I feel myself drawn to qualify that criticism with “…but that’s probably by design.”

So I do have to conclude by saying that while I didn’t particularly enjoy The Double–it didn’t work for me as entertainment, and it didn’t work for me as a piece of art to engage with–I do admire Richard Ayoade for creating something that made me think and giving me one of the toughest reviews I’ve ever had to write (this piece is almost three weeks overdue). In a world where the Black Mirror episode “Fifteen Million Merits” is starting to look less like fiction and more like a documentary, that’s a victory in and of itself.

The Double

A scene from THE STRANGE COLOR OF YOUR BODY'S TEARS

The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears

AKA L’étrange couleur des larmes de ton corps. Belgium. Directed by Bruno Forzani & Hélène Cattet, 2013. Starring Klaus Tange, Ursula Bedener, Joe Koener. 104 minutes.

Leather gloves, straight-razors, primary color filters, funk-influenced Euro-prog, and lots of naked women. This can mean only one thing: the genre’s foremost pasticheurs of giallo, the Belgian duo Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani, are back!

Well…let’s back up a bit. I kind of lied when I said “this can mean only one thing.” Giallo throwback felt fresh in 2009, when the pair burst on the scene with their feature début Amer. But over the past few years, neo-giallo has become a bit of a thing thanks to the likes of Berberian Sound Studio and Sonno Profondo. Now that Cattet and Forzani are no longer the only game in town, the novelty has worn off.

Still, that doesn’t make Strange Color a bad film, and unlike Amer it actually features a plot. It revolves around a telecom executive (Klaus Tange) who returns from a business trip to find his wife entirely missing from an apartment chain-locked from the inside. Tange’s investigation probes into the secret history of the apartment house, allowing for any number of diversions from his bizarre neighbors. The story is very thin at times and is difficult to follow at its best, but at least it’s there.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking Strange Color is a case of style over substance, though. For Cattet and Forzani, style is substance, and their goal here, as always, is to combine their themes (the connection between the erotic and the violent) with the giallo audio-visual conventions to create a specific effect in the viewer. With its nightmarish imagery–a man tearing his way out of his own double’s body (using a straight-razor, natch), a hole in the ceiling that drips blood, stab wounds that look like vaginas and vice-versa–the film feels like a stomach-churningly vivid bad trip.

The downside of all this is that it’s not particularly accessible, even to casual fans of vintage giallo: it deconstructs the conventions so thoroughly that it’s almost impenetrable. Even devotées might find themselves frustrated at how ready and willing the filmmakers are to repeat their visual leitmotifs over the course of the film. And that’s quite apart from the fact that the pair are beginning to seem a bit like a one-trick pony: there’s very little here that they haven’t done before, not just in Amer, but in their short films such as “O is for Orgasm,” their segment of The ABCs of Death. Even the “series of photographs” conceit (think La Jetée) was the centerpiece of their 2002 short The Yellow Room.

Yet even if it does turn out that Cattet and Forzani only have a one-octave keyboard, I won’t deny that they play it exceptionally well, and The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears makes a fine addition to their body of work. A treat for the neo-giallo’s base of superfans.

The Strange Color of Your Body's Tears

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