Written and Directed by: Ti West
Starring: AJ Bowen, Amy Seimetz, and Gene Jones
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“This is the last sacrament..."
It’s been over 35 years since the Jonestown Massacre, and, while those intervening years haven’t exactly softened the horrors of that day, they have put some distance between them, so much so that a phrase like “drinking the Kool-Aid” has entered the lexicon as a sort of joke despite the deaths of 900 people. With The Sacrament, Ti West casts those horrors in sharp relief and recalls the bewildering spell cultists manage to hold over their followers. This isn’t a film concerned with illuminating or exploring the psychology behind cults but rather with capturing the sheer, raw terror they can inspire—it’s a film whose silence on its subject actually says more than anything else could.
West takes a found footage approach grounded through the lens of real-life news outlet Vice Magazine, as two of its writers (A.J. Bowen and Joe Swanberg, two familiar faces that immediately undercut any notion of “reality”) head down to the bowels of Mississippi to investigate a commune at the behest of a man (Kentucker Audley) searching for his sister (Amy Seimetz). Their journey leads them to Eden Parish, an idyllic collective lorded over by Father (Gene Jones), its enigmatic, evangelical savior who preaches a message of self-sufficiency and warns against the evils of the outside world.
As you might expect, this trio of outsiders manages to awaken the sinister undercurrents coursing through the parish, and The Sacrament chronicles nothing more than their hellish descent into an inexplicable terror. At first blush, you hesitate to refer to this as evil: Eden Parish is guided by a rather pure creed that intones against racism and discourages addictions of all sorts. It’s a message of peace, love and cooperation that feels more like an offshoot Flower Power bloom more than an evangelical tract—on the surface, at least. But what else do you call whatever force it is that manages to twist such a clean message into a violent dogma resulting in mass death? When West lingers on the horrific climax (in which family members coax loved ones to suicide and mothers inject their babies with poison), you struggle to consider it anything other than true, unadulterated evil.
Other answers or possibilities aren’t of any interest for West, who frequently resists complex explanations in favor of atmosphere and punctual fits of violence. While The Sacrament’s quicker pace and protracted climax (featuring several outbursts of violence) make it a more eventful film than previous his efforts, it otherwise adheres to West’s patented minimalist, creeping terror formula. Tension mounts from the outset thanks to Tyler Bates’s score, while West provides ample cues to leave little doubt that something fucked up waits just around the corner. By the time the characters approach the parish via helicopter, the film might as well be called Evangelical Holocaust thanks to the hellish, otherworldly backwoods thicket it’s situated in. I often joke about living in the middle of nowhere, but this is the deep, deep south, where folks can enter and never return; I like to think that the otherwise tame woods surrounding my home couldn’t just automatically qualify as the setting for a horror movie.
Once the crew lands, the film progresses quite expectedly. In the sunlight, everyone is inviting and warm, and the two reporters even consider how impressive the endeavor is; however, once dusk creeps over Eden Parish and the duo meets the silver-tongued Father, the sinister subtext becomes the text, seemingly sending the film towards familiar found footage territory, where its characters will endure a grueling, chaotic night wandering through the woods. Instead, The Sacrament takes another path—sure, the one night spent in the commune is exceedingly creepy (West especially finds some unsettling images by keeping mysterious events off in the distance, shrouded in near-darkness), but the following morning is even more unnerving. How many horror films manage to be just as scary in the daylight as they are in the dark?
Essentially, West has crafted a thinly-veiled recreation of Jonestown with The Sacrament, sort of like a feature-length version of the dramatized re-enactments you might see on true crime programming. Anchored by fine, affecting performances from Bowen (playing a straight-up good guy for once), Seimetz, and Jones, the film transcends those pantomimed trappings, though, with all three providing a captivating human element; as chaotic and dizzying as the last twenty minutes are, you’re left with the hope that something can survive the carnage and heartbreak. Most disorienting is Jones’s turn: perpetually cloaked beneath a pair of sunglasses, he remains impenetrable to the end, exuding conviction, compassion, menace, confusion, and despair at various points along the way; most notably, he doesn’t arrive at how a man with a capacity for such love can be driven to acts of utter devastation. Be it madness or evil, it’s inexplicable all the same, and The Sacrament masterfully distills that bewilderment by finding which words not to say—there’s no need to preach to the choir, after all. Buy it!
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