Movies · Reviews

PIFF37 Reviews: ‘Coherence,’ ‘Remote Area Medical,’ and ‘The Sacrament’

By  · Published on February 3rd, 2014

The 37th Portland International Film Festival runs this year from February 6th to the 22nd. They’re screening 104 feature films and 24 shorts across those two weeks from countries as diverse as Afghanistan, Iceland, Nepal, and Taiwan. Check out the official site for tickets and/or more details.

And what better way to lead off my coverage of an international film festival than with a look at three titles from the United States?

Two of the films are slightly askew suspense thrillers, and one is a documentary that takes a very specific look at the sorry state of affairs that is America’s health care reality. First up is Coherence, a Twilight Zone-like tale in the form of a tightly wound thriller tinged with sci-fi and paranoia. It’s a smartly scripted, constantly moving film guaranteed to keep viewers on their toes and possibly on edge. Ti West’s The Sacrament sends a group of journalists to visit a religious compound in search of a missing woman, but they may need more than prayer to get back out again. As scary as those two try to be though, the documentary Remote Area Medical is far more terrifying. It’s also sad, inspiring, and eye-opening.

Keep reading for capsule reviews of Coherence, Remote Area Medical, and The Sacrament, and follow all of our coverage here.


Dinner parties are almost always guaranteed to feature some degree of awkwardness or unpleasantness even if it is just because of your best friend’s pot-luck abomination, but they get even worse when exes and comets are involved. This particular night sees a regular gathering of friends interrupted by residual rage, infidelity, jealousy, and a comet passing a bit too close for comfort. As tensions among the group increase mysterious events start turning an already bad evening into a deadly one.

Writer/director James Ward Byrkit’s feature debut is a smart take on a premise that wouldn’t be out of place in any of Rod Serling’s television worlds. It’s an intelligent thriller with a fairly intricate structure that comes clearer as the story plays out, but the real genius of it is in the setup before the sci-fi element is even fully introduced. The various dinner guests feel fully rendered as each character weaves in and out of the main narrative thread, and plenty of drama is in play before things go topsy turvy.

Details trickle out a bit at a time, and at various times the answer seems tantalizingly close before being snatched away in the shadow of new revelations. It’s a rarity to find a film capable of keeping viewers guessing throughout, but this one is frequently more than one step ahead of viewers. The cast has good fun with the material, and the indie/genre trappings never result in a decrease in performance quality. Fans of smart, thought-provoking thrillers will be rewarded with this one. (Check out our full review here.)

Coherence screens 2/22 at 11:45p. Buy tickets here.

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Remote Area Medical

By some estimates the United States currently has over 45 million citizens without proper access to health coverage and/or health care. Remote Area Medical, or RAM, was founded in 1985 with the goal of providing pop-up medical clinics for the indigenous people along the Amazon in South America, but today over 60% of their clinics are for locations within the U.S. They offer dental, optical, and general health work that people couldn’t and wouldn’t otherwise be able to get. This doc looks at one three-day clinic in Bristol, TN in April of 2012.

Stan Brock created RAM initially to help people in third world countries, but recent years have forced him to cut back those trips to make more U.S. clinics possible. It’s a sad reality, but as infuriating and disturbing as the implications are here the film manages a deep wellspring of hope and positive emotion too. The true power of the doc, as is often the case, comes in the personal, human stories filling the screen before us. The people on both side of the equation, patients in need and people volunteering their time and skills, will test your tear ducts through their situations and actions.

One woman talks about the prohibitive cost/availability of health care, but she also acknowledges the knock to her pride in having to ask for help. A man in his seventies gets a pair of dentures that grant him the strength to smile again as tears fill his eyes. Doctors donating their time, some for the first time and others for the past two decades, talk about the effect of helping people forced to wait in a parking lot overnight. The patients cry in appreciation, the doctors cry in empathy. Fair warning though, in addition to triggering your own tears the doc will also make you rush to the dentist asap to avoid some of the dental fates shown here.

Remote Area Medical screens 2/7 at 8:30p and 2/9 at 3:00p. Buy tickets here.

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The Sacrament

Patrick’s sister, Caroline (Amy Seimetz), has joined a cult-like religious group that recently transplanted itself outside of the U.S. Concerned for her well-being, he convinces his journalist friends to investigate and possibly help extricate Caroline back home. Sam (A.J. Bowen) and Jake (Joe Swanberg) proceed to document the journey for VICE Magazine, but their hopes for an interesting story are met with shocking revelations and very high chance that they won’t be coming home at all.

Ti West’s (The House of the Devil, The Innkeepers) latest feature is his first found-footage style chiller, and like most such films the format leads to far more distraction than it does thrills. How did they film that, that POV doesn’t make sense, why is he still filming, etc. Format issues aside though the film is a well-acted and produced thriller that rarely actually thrills.

The setup will remind viewers of certain real-world parallels, and the film fails to distinguish itself from them in any way. Mere minutes in you’ll be predicting the outcome, and you will be absolutely right. It’s especially frustrating because (format issues aside) the movie is well-made all around. Bowen and Swanberg in particular are charismatic, fun leads, and Gene Jones gives an intensely chilling performance as the cult leader, but they can’t elevate the film behind the plot’s obviousness. (Check out our full review here.)

The Sacrament screens 2/8, at 11:45p. Buy tickets here.

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PIFF 37 runs 2/6–2/22

Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.