Editor’s note: Our review of The Sacrament originally ran during last year’s Fantastic Fest, but we’re re-posting it now as the film opens in limited release.
The past is no guarantee of the future, but it’s often a fairly good guide. A new film from Ti West, for example, offers the soft promise of an unhurried pace and escalating terror as evidenced by his two previous movies, The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers. Past films about cults offer a similar road map to where future ones will go, and while there are far more than two on the topic they seem to be split pretty evenly between two destinations. Some say the world will end with guns and Kool-Aid, others say with sacrifices to the gods.
VICE is a journalism outfit known for breaking the stories that other outlets pass by out of fear or worries over ratings, but their latest story finds Sam (A.J. Bowen) and his cameraman Jake (Joe Swanberg) tagging along with a photographer friend named Patrick (Kentucker Audley) who’s concerned with his sister Caroline’s (Amy Seimetz) welfare. She’s joined a cult that recently transplanted itself outside of the U.S., and Patrick wants to confirm her safety and extricate her if necessary. The trio arrive, and while things seem calm and relatively normal at first it’s not long before the truth comes calling.
The Sacrament is well made in many regards, but it’s also sadly predictable and ultimately pointless. And thanks to its format choice, that of an actual episode of VICE, it’s irritatingly distracting too.
“Please help us.”
Sam has left behind a pregnant wife for his latest adventure, and while he has some trepidation en route their first several hours at Eden Parish reveal smiling residents more than happy to discuss how Father’s (Gene Jones) guidance has in fact given their lives meaning and hope. Caroline seems equally well-adjusted (relatively speaking) and clean of the drug use and depression that had plagued her back in society, but just as the team’s guard comes down Sam is handed a note. It’s a simple plea for help, and suddenly this heaven on earth becomes something else entirely.
This is the most straight forward and simple film of West’s short career so far, and while that’s neither a good nor a bad thing on its own it makes other issues that much more visible.
But first the good news. The performances are strong across the board with Seimetz and Jones in particular standing apart from the crowd with their powerful and charismatic turns. Jones seems tailor made for the role delivering a somewhat more understated take on the “leader” character than Michael Parks managed with his showy turn in Kevin Smith’s Red State. He has a natural presence that seamlessly blends both comfort and threat together in mesmerizing fashion. Bowen is also quite good with a character far more human than the funny and/or creepy guys he’s often relegated to.
There are also some scenes of real tension as the terror builds around our intrepid reporters later in the film, with one of the best coming around the midpoint and consisting solely of dialogue. Sam and Father sit down for an interview in front of the entire congregation, and the ensuing battle of words leaves an electric uneasiness hanging in the air.
Unfortunately though there’s not an original thought to be found here. Nothing new is offered to the cult film canon, and nothing is added to the conversation surrounding what makes people join groups like these or what motivates the men at the top. Worse, it’s immediately clear which direction the film is heading in to everyone but our intrepid reporters. A real life incident bearing a remarkable similarity to events here seems to have occurred in an alternate universe as no one here thinks to mention it directly.
And finally, there’s the unsurprising issues that arise from the film’s formatting choice as a piece of edited news footage ostensibly taken from one or two cameras. More than one occasion sees a scene unfold from multiple perspectives when only one camera is being used. The trio’s opening walk into the compound for example features an uninterrupted conversation captured from repeatedly shifting angles magically taken from a single camera. Some viewers don’t have an issue with errors like this, but it forces the question as to whether or not the format was at all a necessity. This could have very easily been a narrative film, and while that wouldn’t have addressed the story’s limited nature it would have at least removed the distractions.
The Sacrament is worth a watch for fans of the director and cast, but its lack of purpose or anything to say limits its staying power dramatically. Some say the world will end with guns and Kool-Aid, others say with sacrifices to the gods, but both work best when we don’t know that they’re coming ninety minutes in advance.
The Upside: Well-acted all around; Gene Jones and Amy Seimetz in particular stand out; some brief tension
The Downside: Pointless as it adds nothing to the conversation; predictable as it goes exactly where we’d expect; repeatedly ignores its own rules of camera use
On the Side: Ti West, Joe Swanberg and Amy Seimetz have all directed at least one feature film starring at least one of the other two. A.J. Bowen is often their lucky charm.