The Sacrament


Reviewed by: David Graham

The Sacrament
"Gene Jones makes one of the most enigmatic and appalling cult leaders you'll ever see."

A ghoulish exercise in historical re-enactment crudely posing as a modern mockumentary, Ti West's latest is undeniably well-made but leaves a bitter after-taste. Depicting the Jonestown massacre in all but name, the dread simmers masterfully but the attempt at reflexive anti-media postmodernism isn't even as sophisticated as the likes of Deodato's comparable Cannibal Holocaust. By the time the Kool Aid is broken out, you'll be wondering where the twist on this unfortunately all-too-familiar scenario lies: that there isn't one may be a sign of respect, but it leaves the second half feeling somewhat pointless.

On a mission to reconnect with his wayward sister, photographer Patrick enlists Vice crew-members Sam and Jake to cover the remote South American commune where she has found sanctuary, Eden Parish. Upon arrival at the idyllic jungle habitat, Patrick is surprised and relieved to find Caroline healthy and happy, her tour of her new home seemingly revealing it to be a blissful retreat from the ills of modern society. During a fraught interview that evening with the cult's revered Father, a sinister undertow becomes apparent, with disturbed camp-members making a plea to the interlopers to help them escape before a potential doomsday scenario.

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As West's least satisfying experience so far (unless you count his hideously gratuitous segments in V/H/S and The ABCs Of Death), The Sacrament still marks a step forward in his attempt to transcend genre pigeonholing. The first half follows his established pattern of teasing intrigue balanced with slow-burning tension, but after the pivotal - and brilliantly intense - interview with Father, all hell breaks loose in far too perfunctory a fashion. There's little insight into why the followers choose to indulge their hypocritical leader, and even less into why West feels the need to depict the situation.

If the Vice reporters hadn't been such uniformly goody-two-shoes, there might have been a more interesting dynamic, but their unrealistic selflessness eventually feels like a cheap way for West to prolong the agony. His attention to historical detail sits ill at ease with the unabashed product placement the Vice brand brings - as a magazine that poses as 'immersionist', it makes sense that West would adopt their approach, but he's not done enough to either subvert his chosen format or stay true to the tenets of docudrama.

The performances are probably the most engaging aspect of The Sacrament, mumblegore vets AJ Bowen and Joe Swansberg making fine protagonists, although their lack of a personal attachment makes them a questionable focus. Kentucker Audley and Amy Seimetz do well as the estranged siblings, but their relationship is kept frustratingly in the shadows for much of the duration, while the Vice guys predictably question their professional ethics. Gene Jones makes one of the most enigmatic and appalling cult leaders you'll ever see, but there's so little done to give his character depth that he's forever fighting an uphill struggle against God-complex cliche.

It's riveting to a point but ultimately a somewhat flat, hollow experience, with unflattering echoes of Kevin Smith's recent Red State. West fails to get under his subject's skin, and doesn't do enough to distinguish it from the real tragedy. Technically, it's West's most accomplished work to date, with stunning cinematography and his largest ensemble yet, marshaled with impressive confidence. His attempt to tackle real-world horror is undoubtedly admirable, but it isn't quite as effective as it could have been.

Reviewed on: 25 Jun 2014
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The Sacrament packshot
Two young reporters visit a secretive religious group.

Director: Ti West

Writer: Ti West

Starring: Joe Swanberg, AJ Bowen, Amy Seimetz

Year: 2013

Runtime: 92 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US


Glasgow 2014

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