Ti West’s “THE SACRAMENT” (TIFF Movie Review)
More faux doc than “found footage,” Ti West’s THE SACRAMENT exceeds at effectively blurring lines, subsequently succeeding at being horrifying and grounded. From its inclusion of the VICE brand and positing the cult tale as one of their “Guide To’s,” to the rare-for-this-medium proper opening titles to hewing closely to the tragedy of Jonestown and the Peoples Temple, the film presents itself as fictional entertainment about the evil real men do rather than real capturing of supernatural phenomena. The end result is especially unsettling.
Perhaps the most telling of THE SACRAMENT’s unique place in the mock doc device is that its most riveting scenes are two sit-down interviews between star A.J. Bowen’s Sam and Gene Jones’ mesmerizing leader Father. The two scenarios—the latter much less formal as one of them is tied up—don’t bookend the film, but they do bookend a certain section of madness that ensues. The first is a hard dividing line, the realization of just what Sam and his companions Jake (Joe Swanberg) and Patrick (Kentucker Audley) have gotten themselves into. Sam, a reporter for VICE, and Jake, his cameraman, convince Patrick to let them tag along as he reunites with his sister at a mysterious, isolated commune overseas. Upon arrival, Caroline (Amy Seimetz, fantastic in the film) and the congregation are mostly all smiles and passionate testimony despite intimidating security forces and a growing sense that something is gravely wrong.
Of course, an audience that has even a passing familiarity with Jonestown or similar sad stories knows how these things tend to end (not well), so when Father is introduced via the first lengthy chat, you’ll not be ready to sign up for life at Eden Parish. You will, however, believe the power this man wields over his followers. That tense conversation that transpires between the two is strategically positioned on a stage so that it transforms from revealing investigation to a show for the parish. Sam, already seated, must watch Father enter to rapturous applause and tears, shaking hands and doling out hugs and declarations of love. While the two are on stage, the parish acts as echo with Father calling on them to loudly reinforce his talking points of what led them all to this slice of paradise. It’s here, amidst the power play Father pulls by asking Sam of his unborn child, that director West himself reveals THE SACRAMENT is planning to go deeper than he has before.
While often excellent, West’s previous films are essentially campfire stories; “A girl takes a babysitting job and…,” “Two innkeepers are alone for the weekend and…”. THE SACRAMENT, rather, finds parallel with the worrisome hold political and religious leaders have over sects and parties with increasingly extreme and isolating worldviews. Jones is enthralling as the leader, never once removing his sunglasses and ultimately proving unknowable. Father decries the current state of America, quotes scripture and twists word like the best of them. He explains his parish is truly free, all while slyly reminding them who made them such. It surely won’t be lost on an audience watching that much of his congregation is black. Yet as Father spits at racism, name-drops famous black leaders (in a motion to count those leaders as peers) and speaks to equality, he is most assuredly asserting himself over his devotees.
Once Eden Parish becomes a more explicitly dangerous locale, Sam faces a crisis of whether to leave this behind with footage in place, or intervene. Bowen is excellent as the journalist, nailing the typical “VICE Guide To” attitude (brash, humorous with a face that says, “look how crazy we are for coming here”) that transitions into something much more earnest as footing becomes less and less solid. Considering VICE segments are themselves a strange blend of journalism and entertainment, this adds to all that West is interweaving or blurring between fiction and traditional documentary filmmaking and an imagined story inspired so closely by real events.
The finale, which sees the suicide cult take steps to enact the first part of that term, may not be the bloodiest affair, but West makes it no less graphic. The tragic resignation Sam and Jake find themselves witness to is shot with dead-on, nowhere to look away intent which extends to a truly heartbreaking scene between Seimetz and Audley.
A great many modern filmmakers pledge allegiance to the 70s, but often only go so far as to ape its aesthetic. With aid from a Tyler Bates/Graham Reznick soundscape that blends the diegetic environment with ambient score and strangely far-out effects (a baby’s cry transforms into haunting ringing), what’s so captivating about THE SACRAMENT is that West has tapped into the decade’s uncertain atmosphere where a counterculture becomes frightening and fatal, presided over by a warped mind.