The Sacrament (2013)
★ / ★★★★
Inspired by what is now known as the Jonestown Massacre, “The Sacrament,” written and directed by Ti West, is well-shot, beautifully photographed at times, but there is not enough payoff—despite the many deaths during the final twenty minutes. What results is an ungainly found footage feature that offers no real scare—not the kind that jumps out at the screen and we are shocked for a split-second, but the more difficult kind: images that will stay in our guts minutes or even hours after it is over.
Patrick (Kentucker Audley) gets a letter from his sister, Caroline (Amy Seimetz), saying that he is welcome to visit the parish that she had joined—a community that helped her to overcome drug addiction. Patrick’s friends, Sam (AJ Bowen) and Jake (Joe Swanberg), who cover provocative stories untouched by the mainstream, decide to tag along. The trio expect to encounter a hippie commune, but minutes after getting off the helicopter, they are greeted with guns and unfriendly faces.
West is a type of filmmaker who is fond of build-up—a quality that I like. I enjoy a screenplay that actively works to give us the creeps which reaches a peak either about or well past halfway through when the veil is quickly taken away and we learn that our suspicion is true—a refreshing step away from so-called twists that are—upon closer examination—nonsensical, illogical, a brazen attempt to get away with cheating, or all of the above. But all this movie has to offer is an adequate rising action.
I can pinpoint the exact moment when it has started to go wrong. The parish is led by a man only referred to as Father (Gene Jones, who gives a convincing performance). Though Sam and Jake are unexpected guests, Father agrees to be interviewed on-camera. Sam plans to go for the jugular by asking questions designed to expose the flaw in the small community, but he finds himself overpowered by a man who not only knows his way around words, he knows how to twist them in such a way that it takes a person by complete surprise and suddenly all defenses are down.
While it is understandable the Sam character feels shaken for a bit during the interview, from the moment he is thrown off his game, the script commits a critical miscalculation of never allowing to get him back up. This is problematic because he is the eye from which we perceive the bizarre story. He is supposed to be a sharp journalist who knows when and how to get what he wants from his subjects. West should have made Sam a more formidable protagonist, someone who can really challenge the villain of the piece. Otherwise, what makes the story interesting?
The final act of the picture is supposed to be horrifying, I guess, but I felt close to nothing. Though suffering is clearly being portrayed on screen, all I saw were people acting, trying their best to emote what they think dying is like or attempting—and failing—to look like dead people. In other words, it comes off as a charade because there is minimal substance that propels what should have been a convincing tragedy.
If the screenplay had been smarter, it would have focused more on the mind that is single-handedly controlling an entire community. Instead, it comes off not knowing a thing about human psychology—let alone fully understanding a mirror-filled, labyrinthine mind of a master manipulator. Perhaps the scariest thing about it is that it is supposed to be a horror film when, really, it is quite flat across the board—inspired by a true story or otherwise.