With the one-two punch of The House Of The Devil and The Innkeepers, director Ti West established himself as indie horror’s preeminent classicist, someone with a deep understanding of the genre’s past and the patience to craft films of sustained, creeping dread. Miraculously, that style carries over to The Sacrament, which isn’t an exercise in retro style at all, but the latest example of the ubiquitous found-footage—or, in this case, mock-documentary—form that’s become dominant in the digital age. Where most found-footage movies spend half their time with formless dilly-dallying before finally ramping up the scares, The Sacrament feels very much like a Ti West film, loose in its documentary format, but shrewd in the way it picks up on the small, accumulating disturbances at a rural commune that isn’t the utopia it appears to be.
And yet while The Sacrament affirms West’s talent and versatility, the film’s basic conceit is a failure of taste, alluding so heavily to the 1978 Jonestown massacre that it feels like a ghoulish recreation of history. It exists in an unsettling no-man’s-land between escapist entertainment and real-life tragedy, and the scarier it gets, the more cruelly exploitative it seems. Its skillful execution of a bad idea doesn’t make the bad idea any better; in fact, the scrupulousness with which West and his crew evoke the past make the film that much more unsavory.
AJ Bowen, Joe Swanberg, and Kentucker Audley lead a cast of familiar indie faces as a three-person documentary crew from Vice magazine, which specializes in provocative overseas expeditions. The photographer, Patrick (Audley), has received a disquieting note from his sister Caroline (Upstream Color’s terrific Amy Seimetz), who has cleaned up after drug-abuse problems and given her life over to a Christian parish. With Caroline now living in an isolated commune in an unnamed country—viewers might be inclined to name it “Guyana”—Patrick and his colleagues, reporter Sam (Bowen) and cinematographer Jake (Swanberg), head down to check it out. The agrarian compound, Eden Parish, seems to be full of people as content in their simple, austere living arrangement as Caroline. They blissfully co-exist under their charismatic leader (Gene Jones), whose Southern drawl sounds reassuring even when piped through the loudspeakers dotting the landscape. But as notes of discord start to trickle out to the three journalists, the situation quickly unravels.
In true West form, The Sacrament holds off for a good half-hour before unveiling Jones’ avuncular “Father,” and the tension feeds into the best scene in the movie—Sam hitting him with a battery of tough questions, Father casually swatting them down like flies on his porch. It’s crucial that Jones register as both a shady character and a silver-tongued cult of personality who’s capable of wrangling lost sheep into his flock. His electrifying turn in this one scene amplifies the stakes, and decisively tips The Sacrament into white-knuckle docu-horror, suggesting the enormity of his power and influence in this isolated place where his laws hold sway—not the government’s, and certainly not God’s.
What’s ultimately disappointing about The Sacrament, however, is that its relationship to Jonestown is more parallel than perpendicular, with no real angle on the tragedy that might complicate it, or at least make the sequence of events seem surprising. Anyone familiar with Jonestown will feel it beat-for-sickening-beat, but seeing it updated and fictionalized as a horror movie has the effect of turning a true story into campfire legend. The past becomes grist for the mill.