Our old buddy Ti West is back (well, some of us consider him an old buddy when we’ve been watching his movies for nearly 10 years now) and he’s only improved in status, budget, and skill, it seems. His latest film The Sacrament falls into the category of religious horror, since it is based around a religious sect (most would be quick to say “cult”) that has shades of Jonesboro, seen from the angle of modern “immersion” journalism, where journalists are not simply there to observe and report, but to inject themselves into the story at hand, which often becomes a catalyst for change in the story being reported on.
West (who also wrote the screenplay) takes his main characters Sam (the always reliable AJ Bowen), Jake (the less reliable but always enthusiastic Joe Swanberg), and Patrick (Kentucker Audley) to the story through the lens of VICE Magazine (who have gained considerable notoriety the past two years via their HBO show of the same name) where Bowen plays a very thinly veiled version of real-life VICE co-founder Shane Smith) in an attempt to get an objective point of view on the “family” who has chosen to live in a rural community that is completely self-reliant, and has no use for the outside world.
What piques Sam’s curiosity is the fact that Patrick’s sister has gone to live in this closed-off community, and while he sees a story to be investigated, his first intention is to investigate the well-being of Patrick’s sister, if there is something sinister going on, he wants to expose it to the world. In reality, it’s a ‘two-birds-with-one-stone’ deal, not only will he get a story, but they will be able to ascertain the true will of Patrick’s sister while they are there.
Upon their arrival, they hear of the leader of the commune, Father (Gene Jones, coincidence?), and all the done he has good for the community. What they see immediately alarms them for many reasons: Being a seasoned journalist, Sam can see the obvious shades of Jim Jones and Jonesboro in the community, but in being an objective journalist, he puts his knee-jerk reactions to bed in order to maintain objectivity. The film spends its first half establishing this theme: No matter how much like Jonesboro this might seem, to jump to a conclusion that it will turn out the same puts Sam and company into the people they like least: judgmental society as a whole. In an effort to give Father and his community a fair shake, he interviews many people in the community, and is initially convinced this is nothing like Jonesboro, that these people have taken the socialist ideals and actually made them work in a functioning society free of racism, greed, and hate as a whole.
However, a few things trip up his alarm system: The fact that they are referred to as “outsiders”, and the fact that they can’t get a clear answer on who Father is, and what he really has planned for the people of his community. Being a found footage film, the obvious tropes are here, and West makes no effort to hide them. In fact, he even embellishes them, with nods to other movies that leave little explanation in regards to the real world (such as, ‘who is holding the camera?’, etc). He does not bother trying to convince the viewer what they are seeing is real, he doesn’t seem to care. Instead, he intones “just watch”. And watch we shall.
To reveal the ending to any found footage is to delete any fun that could be had from the viewing of the film. So I’ll leave the plot at that. However, it’s no spoiler to say that this film, and its success or failure, rests fully on the shoulders of Gene Jones (he of No Country For Old Men fame). Now, Jones has been an actor for quite some time it seems, but only in the past 10 years or so has he been consistently working in “Hollywood”, it would seem. With minor roles here and there, he has that face you see and never forget, but at the same time, can’t quite place. In catching up on Boardwalk Empire season 4, I immediately recognized him as the Indiana counter man from episode one, who has a very brief, but very genuine, role in the opening of the episode. Here, he breaks down all walls and becomes raw power on screen. Without this turn, the film would have fallen apart, become a mere facade of a found footage film. But the power he conveys gives you no choice but to be riveted as a viewer.
West’s greatest achievement here is muddling the line between what you expect to happen, and what he executes. Many will go in expecting the film to be about one thing, a singular purpose if you will, and most will be paid off with the knowledge that they were right the entire time. That was my only trouble with it, and maybe it’s my trouble alone: I’ve followed the stories of many cults, so I had an expectation of what a movie about a cult would be. But West tries very hard (and often succeeds) in convincing you that this is not the cult movie you expect it to be. Again, this is all because of the convincing nature of Jones’ performance as Father. There are other good roles in the film (Donna Biscoe‘s Wendy comes to mind) but they all serve a greater purpose, which is, of course, the ending.
Here’s what I will say about the ending: For many, it might be shocking, especially in two key scenes. But as a seasoned horror viewer, I was left saying “Really, Ti? That’s it?” Middle America might be shocked and horrified, but for those of us that have seen Blue Sunshine, The Hills Have Eyes, and Inside (the same ones West obviously loves) will be left scratching their heads in expectation of something more. It’s not a bad ending, but in a way, it’s expected. If you spend 70 minutes telling me something can go any way, it better go any way, and not exactly the way I expect. But again, maybe that’s my failure as a viewer for having expectations beyond this film and its nature.
Still, it’s worth watching, Jones proves he can carry a film with the same bravado Marlon Brando carried The Godfather with, ,and for some, it might be a shocking and unexpected story. There are a few incidents of creative gore for the hounds out there, but it’s not a bloody mess as you might expect it to become at the halfway point. AJ Bowen proves yet again he’s the biggest star that could give a fuck about what Hollywood thinks of him, and by this point, I think he’s comfortable there. If you’re a big Ti West fan, this is probably right up your alley. My favorite Ti West movie is still The Innkeepers for sheer originality and performances, but those that got a good kick out of The House of the Devil‘s slow-burn nature will appreciate this even more. I liked House but I wasn’t blown away.
Any way you slice it, however, this is still a better way to spend 90 minutes than anything else released in major theaters this year as far as horror is concerned, so there’s that. If anything, support the film with your dollars so filmmakers like Swanberg, West, and their pals Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett can stay commercially viable (not that Wingard and Barrett have to worry, their next film The Guest will likely explode when it hits screens next week). West might not have a home run in The Sacrament, but it’s a clean double and in this league of no-hit pitching, a little excitement goes a long way, at least for me. A horror film for younger people, by younger people.
The Sacrament is out now on all major VOD outlets and DVD from Magnet Releasing.