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New Review: The Sacrament (2014)
Director: Ti West
Cast: AJ Bowen, Kentucker Audley, Gene Jones, Amy Seimetz, Joe Swanberg, Donna Biscoe, Kate Lyn Sheil
I have to question Ti West's motives for making something like The Sacrament. While there's no denying that the movie is very well made (Ti West is an exceptionally talented filmmaker), it also shamefully exploits a real life tragedy for the sake of entertainment and easy thrills. It would be one thing if the movie had something to say about the tragedy that inspired it, but The Sacrament doesn't seem to have anything on its mind. It simply wants to shock you with its graphic and ugly images, and in the end, it left me feeling a little queasy and unclean.
The movie opens with fashion photographer Patrick (Kentucker Audley) receiving a letter from his troubled sister Caroline (a haunting Amy Seimetz), saying that she's turned her life around and joined the off-the-grid Eden Parish community, and invites him to come and visit her. Accompanied by VICE journalist Sam (AJ Bowen) and his photographer buddy Jake (Joe Swanberg), who are both looking to do a story on the isolated community and its leader "Father" (Gene Jones, from No Country For Old Men), the three men take a plane to an unnamed country, are flown to the community by a helicopter, and are greeted by a couple of soldiers with machine guns.
Once Caroline meets them and welcomes them into the community, Sam and Jake go around interviewing the locals, trying to get the scoop on the place. Everyone seems happy to be living there. There's no violence, everyone has a job and a place to sleep, and there's a medical center that seems pretty well stocked. As the night wears on, the three men are convinced that there's nothing really negative going on in the community, until a little girl approaches them with a note that says, "Please help us!" (Uh-oh!)
Eventually, Sam is given a chance to interview Father in front of his congregation, in a scene so well acted and written that it stands out as a high point in the movie. The second Father enters the frame (and it's the first time we ever see him), he comes across as an affable and friendly gentleman. He seems to really love his flock, and at the start of the interview, he answers the questions in a very direct manner. Then the scene starts to take on a sinister tone as Father begins asking Sam questions of his own, including whether he loves his wife back home and the unborn child he has on the way. Father says he's simply making a point by asking, but the way Jones plays the scene, it almost comes across as a threat.
Many critics have praised the performance turned in by Gene Jones, and for good reason. He manages to suggest a deep sickness and hostility even at his most charming and charismatic, and while he's only in the movie for the second half of the picture, there's no denying that Jones turns in a powerful and enthralling performance. The other actors play their parts well enough (Bowen is especially good during the interview scene), and West should be credited for making a found footage, docu-style horror movie that isn't visually headache-inducing. And like his previous two movies The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers (it's best to forget about his dreadful Trigger Man), the movie has a quietly sinister tone throughout, so that even the more mundane scenes have an air of menace about them.
So, yes, the movie is well made and well acted, but is there a point to it? If there was, I didn't see it. The movie is a fictionalized account of the Jamestown Massacre of 1978, in which a little over 900 followers of cult leader Jim Jones committed suicide by drinking poison tainted Kool-Aid. We get a scene in the movie where every man, woman, child, and infant is given a dose of poisoned Kool-Aid, and those who don't drink from it are either shot dead or kill themselves in other ways (one woman sets herself on fire). Perhaps the most vile scene in the movie comes when a woman takes her daughter (who looks to be no older than 10) and slits her throat with a knife (the sound of the child gurgling as she bleeds out is particularly distasteful).
These are vile images, and before you say anything, I have no doubt that what happened during the Jonestown Massacre was just as ugly, if not more so. But shouldn't there be a reason for a filmmaker to create such images? Shouldn't there be a purpose behind a movie like this? West has said that the Jamestown Massacre was indeed an inspiration for this movie, but it isn't enough to use a (not too old) real life horror story as the basis for a geek show. In fact, it's kind of inexcusable. Even if you could accept this movie as a straight up horror movie entertainment, it still isn't very good. Nothing that happens in the movie is either scary or surprising. Disturbing? Unpleasant? Absolutely. But never scary. The characters also tend to behave foolishly once placed in danger, such as a particular moment when Jake fails to pick up a gun and use it as protection.
This movie just didn't sit right with me at all. It's a despicable and exploitative movie, and the fact that it is well-made and acted (somehow) makes the viewing experience all the more unpleasant. There are documentaries and clips on Youtube that go in further detail about the Jonestown Massacre, his followers, and the leader himself. Why waste your time on a fictionalized "entertaining" account of the tragedy that tells you nothing? More to the point, why make a fictionalized account of the tragedy, and why try to pass it off as entertainment?
Rated R for strong violence, profanity, some drug use.
Final Grade: * ½ (out of ****)
What did you think of this movie? :)
Other Thoughts on The Sacrament (2014) :D
- TIFF Review: ‘The Sacrament’ - Film.com
Sometimes bad films happen to good people.
- Dustin Putman's Review: The Sacrament (2014)
The Sacrament (2014) - 3/4 Stars - 'The Sacrament' is strong stuff, a concise, provocative exhibition of how the words of one individual can pull such an influentially harmful sway over a group of vulnerable people searching for purpose.
- The Sacrament Movie Review & Film Summary (2014) | Roger Ebert
- Film Freak Central - TIFF '13: The Sacrament
*/**** written and directed by Ti West by Bill Chambers Surrendering once again to V/H/S found-footage mode, writer-director Ti West brazenly co-opts the particulars of the mass suicide at Jonestown, Guyana, abandoning only the names and most expensi