D: Ti West / 95m
Cast: Joe Swanberg, AJ Bowen, Kentucker Audley, Gene Jones, Amy Seimetz, Katie Forbes, Shirley Jones-Byrd, Kate Lyn Sheil, Donna Biscoe, Talia Dobbins
When photographer Patrick (Audley) receives a letter from his sister, Caroline (Seimetz), that tells him she’s part of a sober living community, and that she’s moving with them to a foreign country, he enlists the help of Vice, a multi-media company, to discover what’s really happening. Joined by reporter Sam (Bowen) and cameraman Jake (Swanberg), they travel to the community’s new location – a compound named Eden Parish – and find Caroline safe and well and happy, along with dozens of people of all ages who have dedicated their lives to the teachings of the man they call Father (Jones). Father has created a drug and alcohol free, politically independent society where there is no violence, no crime, only a firm belief in the Bible and the need for the community to remain apart from others.
Father agrees to be interviewed by Sam but it doesn’t go as Sam expects, and he finds himself wrong-footed and confused. He and Jake become increasingly aware that not everything is as it seems, or as Father professes. A woman implores them to take her mute daughter with them when they leave; an encounter with Caroline leads Sam and Jake to believe that she is high; and Patrick is kept away from them deliberately. The next morning, as well as the woman and her mute child, there are several other people trying to leave the compound. Fearing an end to his work, Father makes a drastic decision, one that has terrible consequences for everyone there.
With obvious parallels to the story of Jim Jones, The Sacrament has a horrible fatalism that permeates the movie throughout, and makes for often uncomfortable viewing. Filmed found footage style – but with the odd occasional shot that clearly isn’t part of the set up – Ti West’s latest sees the world of exclusionist religion brought into sharp relief. It’s a difficult subject to tackle, but West crafts a gripping thriller from the premise of a collective created out of one man’s misguided wish to provide a better life for his followers. As it becomes more and more evident that Eden Parish is not the paradise that Father would have Sam and Jake (or the outside world) believe, the movie develops a quiet power and the tragedy that unfolds takes on a grim inevitability.
To be clear, there is nothing new here, and nor does West’s screenplay attempt to add anything different to the basic set up, but such is his growing confidence as a filmmaker that, while The Sacrament plays out as predictably as expected, it does so with a compelling fascination that keeps the viewer hooked as events unfold. It’s also one of the few found footage movies that doesn’t look contrived with its framing, West proving capable of making the majority of shots look organic and plausible in their focus (and without resorting to any manufactured jump scares). That said, the movie could have been filmed in a more traditional manner and it would still have been as effective.
Adding another layer of credibility to proceedings, West coaxes some great performances from his cast, with Bowen and Jones proving particularly impressive. Bowen is gaining more and more exposure as an actor, his indie leanings often leading to characterisations that have a greater depth to them than you might expect, and here he expertly displays the indecision that Sam feels about Eden Parish and its leader. And as that leader, Jones is simply mesmerising, his low-key, slightly pained delivery both forceful and unnerving in equal measure. As his vision for the community begins to unravel, so too does Father, revealing the psychosis beneath the believer, a psychosis shared by Caroline and many others. It’s a subtle, confident performance, one that stays in the memory long after the movie is over. Until now, Jones has been known primarily as the gas station proprietor who survives an encounter with Javier Bardem’s badly tonsured psycho in No Country for Old Men (2007), but on this evidence he deserves to be given even bigger and better opportunities to shine.
The Sacrament does have one major flaw however, and while it’s entirely forgivable, it does undermine the growing tension of the first hour. With the understanding that there are people who want to leave Eden Parish because it’s not all it seems, but are too afraid to speak out, the sudden attempt at an exodus comes across as expediency instead of an intrinsic consequence of events so far. This awkward turn of events also brings forward the expected denouement, and in doing so, sees the movie abandon its measured approach in the first hour in favour of various confrontations and chase sequences. These scenes are still effective – one that features Patrick and Caroline and the fate of one of them is as terrible to watch as anything featured in a more bloody horror film – but they end up divorced from the cumulative effect of what’s gone before.
But when all is said and done, this is a testament to West’s increasing skills as a writer/director. With his revenge Western, In a Valley of Violence, due in 2015, it’s not unreasonable to place him on the list of directors whose movies are eagerly looked forward to, especially on this evidence. And with so few original voices working in the field of horror these days, West is a talent to be followed with avid interest.
Rating: 8/10 – essential viewing for fans of intelligent, well-constructed terror, with an understated but scary performance from Jones, The Sacrament is a throwback to the paranoia-ridden horror movies of the Seventies; potent and rewarding, this confirms West’s rising status and is pretty much a horror sleeper.