Shockumentary, by David Bax
Because director Ti West is known pretty much exclusively for his work in the horror genre, it would be natural to approach his newest work, The Sacrament, as a horror film. And he does put to use his expertise in unsettling audiences by sustaining a growing, sickening tension that eventually and inevitably explodes into gruesomeness. Still, it would be wrong to say that the film is scary. It would probably be wrong to assume that being scary was West’s intent at all. Why, then, did he make the film? That nagging question, still dangling, unanswered, at the story’s conclusion, is what prohibits The Sacrament from being as complete and satisfying a work as West’s other features.
AJ Bowen plays Sam, a reporter for Vice who is fascinated by a story his friend Patrick (Kentucker Audley) tells him about Patrick’s sister and the Christian/sober-living commune she has joined in an unspecified, underdeveloped country. Along with cameraman Jake (Joe Swanberg), they decide to visit for a couple days and do a story.
The use of real-life news organization Vice is weird, jarring and unnecessary. The brand’s inclusion reads as an advertisement, especially when the opening titles educate us about Vice’s unique method of journalism they’ve named “immersionism,” which is not noticeably different from the type of on-site reporting Dan Rather did 40 years ago and countless others have done since.
The real weakness of the mockumentary approach is that The Sacrament is yet another “found footage” horror movie. Though I still believe that medium can be effective with the right employment, the conventions of the gimmick have been worn threadbare. Perhaps found footage needs to spend some time on injured reserve until it’s rested up and able to play at full capacity again. West does, however, find some ways to goose the suspense with this methodology. The use of subtitles implies that this footage did make its way out and was cut together by someone; but the lack of post-production voiceover by Sam makes you worry about his survival. Other than these subtle tricks, though, mostly we are subjected to the same unreasonable requests to suspend our disbelief. How did they get that many shots of this scene with one camera? Why, despite a couple of lines like, “This story needs to be told,” is anyone still filming? And even if they are, why would this particular person be filming this particular thing without foreknowledge of the finished product?
Most of the main cast have turned in great performances elsewhere (Bowen, Swanberg, Amy Seimetz and Kate Lyn Sheil were all fantastic in the recent You’re Next, as was West himself) but the contrivances they are required to sell hobble them. Seimetz is a little too ominously cheerful at first; Bowen is forced to make Sam react as if things have gotten really weird before they have; and Swanberg is saddled with actual, fate-tempting lines like “Nothing else will happen tonight.”
The only performer truly allowed to gallop free is Gene Jones, who plays the commune’s founder and leader, known simply as Father. You may remember Jones as the timid gas station owner dubbed “Friendo” by Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men. There’s no timidity in his performance here. He is boisterous, wily and avuncular. He possesses all the charisma one would assume necessary to convince scores of people to sell all their possessions and follow him across the world. He also displays enough menace to keep those same people too fearful to disobey him. The Sacrament’s best scene is the long interview Sam is allowed to conduct with Father in front of the entire congregation. Father dodges Sam’s tougher questions with the grace of a verbal ballerina and turns them back on him in a way that is both performance and threat, smiling and laughing all the while.
This scene is also the only time West appears to be at all curious about the cult’s motivations and beliefs. From early on, it’s clear that the commune and the events are inspired by the Jonestown massacre of 1978. Eden Parish, as it’s called in the film, is based as firmly in Father’s religious and anti-tax beliefs as it is in his aggressively liberal and socialist politics. This blend, counterintuitive as it may seem in modern America, is similar to the philosophical makeup of Jim Jones himself. In these moments, I was reminded of Craig Zobel’s Compliance. Zobel also took as his inspiration events that would be dismissed as far-fetched if they weren’t true. But he used his camera to look deep into both the perpetrators and the victims and force us to confront them as human beings just like us. West’s inquisitiveness (not to mention Sam’s journalistic ethos) doesn’t run nearly as deep. He simply imagines how things happened and not why.
In the third act, things get terrifyingly ugly. West portrays the events unflinchingly in a way that his aesthetic reserve up till then has more than earned. Yet there is nothing for us to chew on when it’s over. The Sacrament is content to give us a cavalcade of horrors but no catharsis.