Following the tremendous (and very much deserved) acclaim for The House Of The Devil and The Innkeepers, Ti West was heralded as one of modern horror’s greatest talents. Perhaps inevitably, all this praise led to a backlash, as West’s segments in V/H/S and The ABCs Of Death were met with some criticism. For those of us who agree with the assessment that the director is one of the most exciting filmmakers working in the genre, The Sacrament is a very exciting proposition indeed: a found-footage horror about a mysterious cult starring AJ Bowen, Amy Seimetz and Joe Swanberg; three of mumblecore’s best talents. The result is flawed, but it’s certainly worth a look.
When fashion photographer Patrick (Kentucker Audley) gets word that his recovering addict sister Caroline (Seimetz) is now living in a commune called Eden Parish, Vice journalists Sam (Bowen) and Jake (Swanberg) convince him to let them tag along to document their reunion and to get an inside look at a functioning cult. A helicopter takes them to a secret location outside the US, where armed guards protect what appears to be a happy, healthy community. Each member attests to the fact that they were taken out of a bad situation and they are grateful to Father (Gene Jones) for helping them. But are things as innocent as they appear?
The Sacrament isn’t a total departure for West, but it’s definitely a step away from the deliberately restrained chills of The House Of The Devil and The Innkeepers. It owes more to the civilisation clashes of cannibal films than his supernatural-infused back catalogue. The documentary style inevitably means that there are some differences in the pacing and staging, although it’s not quite found footage, as it is clearly scored and edited (there are even informative title cards.) The film is also a lot more confrontational in its presentation of shocking events, which might surprise devotees of the director.
The first half does see West slowly ratcheting up the tension as Sam and Jake try to tease details out of the commune’s population and wonder if their cynicism is misplaced. This issue of perception culminates in a fantastic scene at the halfway point in which Sam interviews Father in front of the entire community. It’s beautifully played by Bowen and Jones, as the character’s homespun wisdom and 1960s idealism threaten to tip into something much more sinister. This is also where West’s decision to use the found-footage format plays out very well, as the simple staging allows the actors to fully occupy our attention.
So it’s a shame that the second half of the film can’t quite hold onto this sense of tension and menace. At this point things could go either way. This could either be a Jonestown cult, or it could be a peaceful commune that is being willfully misunderstood by two men looking for a good story. Inevitably, one or the other must be true, and it’s not really a surprise when West plays his hand. The second half isn’t without its moments; it’s often effective and quite shocking. The unflinching manner in which the film depicts the events often yields excellent results, but it sometimes feels overly staged, which pushes us away when it should be grabbing us by the throat.
The cast are all excellent. Bowen, Swanberg and Seimetz will be very familiar to genre fans, having appeared in A Horrible Way To Die and You’re Next together. Bowen (The Signal) continues to be a magnetic presence, while Seimetz (Upstream Colour) gives Caroline’s sunniness just the right hint of ambiguity. Swanberg is behind the camera for the most part, but his cynicism contrasts well with Bowen’s upbeat energy. Special mention is reserved for Jones (who you might recognise as the gas station owner asked to “Call it” in No Country For Old Men), who is utterly convincing as the commune’s charismatic leader.
Although The Sacrament’s final act is eventually too inconsistent to really satisfy, there’s plenty to recommend here. It’s atmospheric, tense and the lead performances are very strong. It would perhaps have been more interesting to see the film play with the idea of “immersionism” as a style of journalism more, and to push the debate of the press’ accountability in situations such as this. However, it’s an interesting issue that is at least raised in a film that, for the most part, successfully presents a shocking scenario in a considered but unglamourised fashion. This may not be the director’s best work, but it’s an intriguing and often powerful departure that’s definitely worth a look.