Cast: AJ Bowen, Joe Swanberg, Kentucker Audley, Amy Seimetz
Director: Ti West
Running Time: 1 hour 40 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
Here comes the moment where detractors of writer-director Ti West pull out their critical chainsaws and take to the man with murderous glee. Here comes the moment where his worshipful followers rush to his side and implore everyone not to take the hateful, trolling kool-aid. Here comes the moment where the rest of us admit that West is a bit of an enigma, a horror director favoring the slow burn and practical effects over CGI-enhanced mayhem and blood-curdling violence. In his latest film The Sacrament, West attempts to combine the understated mood of his previous films The House of the Devil and The Inkeepers with the lazy found footage genre, and in the process, makes a hybrid that takes away the filmmaker's most verifiable asset; that being his visual sense. With both The House of The Devil and The Inkeepers, West proved fully capable of sustaining a mood of dread through creative framing and inventive tracking shots. Here, he's bound to the purposefully crappy digital video aesthetic of found footage, which allows him to make a movie that tries very hard to instill the premise with a visceral grittiness, but instead comes across false and hacky.
Above all else, The Sacrament plays like faux-historical drama disguised as genre titillation. It begins promisingly by investing the audience in the daily rhythms of a remote village in an unnamed country, documented by a crew of punk journalists. This documentary crew, headed by lead investigator Sam (AJ Bowen), cameraman Jake (Joe Swanberg), and still photographer Patrick (Kentucker Audley), are on a mission to both unearth the mysteries of the village dubbed "Eden Parish", as well as reconnecting with Patrick's sister, a former junkie played by Amy Seimetz. These early moments, in which the crew wander around interviewing various parish members as well as getting small bits of information from Seimetz's character, have an improvisational vibe that gives one the impression that West may take the story into some interesting directions. However, despite strong work from Seimetz and a few nicely realistic touches concerning how the village operates; everything from sustainable farming, medical resources, and celebratory bluegrass music gets attention here, West is unable to navigate the film's shift from growing unease to all-out madness in the final third.
The problem is that as soon as the crew arrive at Eden Parish, it's clear that something nefarious is afoot. Most cults follow a similar template; give up your freedom and material goods in order to join a like-minded community where your contributions make a noticeable difference. Eden Parish fits into this mold, and as the documentarians dig deeper into why people would leave their homes to join this community, the tension slowly dissipates as we come to learn what's been entirely obvious from the outset. This includes the introduction of the parish's leader (known only as Father) and played rather deftly by Gene Jones, a slow-talking, gregarious old man who speaks with religious fervor about this way of live apart from standardized society. The film's centerpiece is an extended interview between Bowen's lead investigator and Gene's oily cult leader, and while it's an intriguing sequence to hang your hat on, West's writing here is too obvious and Jone's performance (though engaging), pitches too far into unsettling territory to engineer any kind of suspense. Therefore, the ensuing third act is such an ill-judged miscalculation that it obliterates whatever creepy goodwill the film had built up.
The fact that The Sacrament turns into a depressing and utterly pointless reworking of a ghastly real-world tragedy means that the whole enterprise smacks of historical exploitation. Not that West is necessarily wanting his audience to be entertained. To the contrary, the film seems to rub your face in the awful atrocities that often occur in the name of irrational religious faith so that the obvious take away will be that of disgust and anger. It's too bad, then, that the reaction of disgust and anger is redirected at West's disingenuousness rather than the movie's actual content. It's almost as if West realized his genre fans were growing impatient and felt the need to deliver on his horror credentials. The problem, therefore, isn't really the narrative's outcome (though the logic on the part of Father is spurious at best), nor the annoying found footage angle where characters continuously pick up the camera and continue filming despite widespread carnage, but rather that West has absolutely no point of view on this material. Since The Sacrament never really seeks to contemplate the emotional and mental psychology of its characters, the unhinged finale lacks both the elements of surprise as well as the searing gut-punch intensity that it's clearly going for. Instead, the movie is a cheap and offensive stunt in which West banks on our familiarity with ripped-from-the-headlines apocalyptic horror stories and cultish fanaticism in order to manipulate our emotional response. What a waste.