Ti West has made some fantastic films; they are very slow but they have an established ambiance, a compelling story, and above all, the characters are well written. Aside from Cabin Fever 2, which I have not seen, The Roost, House of the Devil, and The Innkeepers are phenomenal achievements in horror. When the trailer for The Sacrament debuted, it looked incredible, but I had the strange feeling that I had seen it before. In fact, I had. I knew it as the Jonestown Massacre. For those who are unaware, Jonestown was an isolated Christian socialist commune that existed a few miles outside of Georgetown, Guyana. The settlement became a refuge for the roughly 918 members of the People’s Temple. However, in 1978, when Congressman Leo Ryan, and a few members of the press came to investigate, the bizarre, ominous activities of the community came out of the woodwork. Several defectors begged the congressman to take them back home, and when they arrived on the airstrip, Jim Jones, the cult founder, ordered his followers to gun them down in cold blood. The Congressman, the two airplane pilots, the defectors, and all but one of the press members were instantly killed. He then convinced all 908 members of his church to drink cyanide-laced Kool-Aid; many against their will. The children and infants were also forcibly poisoned to death. It was the largest mass murder/suicide until the September 11th attacks. This, oddly enough, is the exact storyline of The Sacrament; replace Ryan’s party with three representatives of Vice Magazine, and replace Jonestown with Eden Parish.
Let’s disregard how frighteningly uncanny The Sacrament is, compared to the events leading up to the Jonestown Massacre, and look at it as a wholly original story. Like with most films about cults, it's very intriguing but it’s hampered by one unnecessary aspect: it’s yet another found footage movie. Wait, its sort of a found footage movie. The story “focuses” on Patrick, played by Kentucker Audley, a fashion photographer who finds his missing sister Caroline in Eden Parish. She is now a devoted follower of the enigmatic religious leader known as Father, played by Gene Jones (the gas station clerk from No Country for Old Men). Two others accompany Patrick: a reporter, Sam, played by AJ Bowen, and his cameraman, Jake, played by Joe Swanberg. You might be wondering why focused is in quotes. Since the whole story is kickstarted by Patrick’s quest to find his sister, you might think that plays a pivotal role in the story. You’d be wrong. In fact, the story is primarily focused on Sam and his unnerving feeling about the community. It’s a shame because Patrick’s story is really fascinating. This precedence to focus on a less-engaging storyline means that the film is bland; neither Sam nor Jake have any personal stakes in the matter. Additionally, we are barely given any background or insight into Patrick and Caroline. Who are they? Who were they beforehand? What was their relationship like? What happened to them? None of this is answered. Thus we do not feel the devastating consequences of Father’s actions because as an audience, we cannot emotionally connect to them. We don’t even see them reacquainting with one another despite Patrick owning a video camera! It’s the reason why they are there, and we never see it. I applauded Ti West for having strong leading and supporting characters in all his movies, however, here, there is little to no humanity in either of the characters. Even when the Kool-Aid scene unfolds, I feel no emotion towards any of the cult members because, like everyone else in the story, I was told very little about them. If this is structured to be a documentary, there is very little setup or documentation.
Performance wise, it seemed that most were just phoning it in. Bowen, Swanberg, Audley, and Amy Seimetz, who played Caroline, all seemed as though they were unenthused by the lackluster script. Conversely, the supporting cast of cult members were great. They felt like real people in candid situations. Specifically Gene Jones as Father; he was phenomenal. Though he sported aviators and a flannel shirt, mirroring the signature appearance of Jim Jones, he had a character all his own: he came off as a friendly, calm, intelligence individual. As performances are concerned, the scene where Sam interviews him is top notch. It eerily recalls the bathroom scene where Jack speaks with Grady in Kubrick’s The Shining. In fact, the interview holds some resemblance with the famous coin-toss scene in No Country as well: they both have very sinister implications.
Now, let’s discuss the found footage aspects. It seems that converting a horror movie into a found footage film is the only way to get distribution. Like so many others, The Sacrament is needlessly found footage. Strike that, it’s only 50% found footage. It’s strange because this is a hybrid movie, and it's stylistically inconsistent. When it moves into the found footage perspective, there are seamless cutaways and close-ups that suggest a traditionally shot film, but from a found footage approach, it doesn’t make sense. An example: during a candid interview with a cult member, we cut to a reaction shot of Sam. Since Jake is on the interviewee, and Patrick is elsewhere with his Caroline, who is shooting Sam? If it’s Jake, when does he have time to quickly pan over to Sam if the questions are one after another? However, the contradictory style quickly impedes on the story; as briefly mentioned before, Patrick and Caroline retreat to talk things over but we never see them talking. Since our perception is through Jake’s camera, we never follow Patrick and Caroline, but the style moves in and out of camera, so why couldn’t they use that opportunity to cut to Patrick and Caroline? Why couldn’t Patrick use his camera to record it? The method also restricts us from really understanding the cult. There is a mother and daughter who want to leave; I’d like to see more of them. I’d like to know why Patrick disappears for half of the movie. I’d like to see more of Father. I’d like to see the other defectors too. What are their stories? Everything else is shot and edited so traditionally, it begs the question: why couldn’t this have been a traditionally shot movie? There wouldn’t be a problem moving in and out of the found footage perspective if there was some visual distinction between the found footage sequences and the traditional sequences. The Sacrament does not benefit from being told through the camera’s viewpoint. I guess it’s traditional when it’s most convenient for the story, huh?
The Sacrament is very disappointing, especially if you consider the director’s previous work, which stands above most mainstream horror. The story is almost a point for point reenactment of the Jonestown Massacre, except for slight story altercations. Most critics condemn it for being ‘too slow,’ but I disagree. While Ti West’s other films are slow burn, the only reason why they never felt that way was because of the characters. They made time fly. Since The Sacrament has little to no humanity, we are finally feeling the effects of a slow-building film without any characters to keep us entertained. Make no mistake, what happened in Jonestown is horrifying, but The Sacrament is an injustice if was inspired by these events. If you are looking for something more terrifying and real, and is coincidentally a docudrama, I suggest Jonestown: Paradise Lost, which is currently streaming on Netflix. It accomplishes what The Sacrament failed to elaborate on.