AJ Bowen stars in "The Sacrament," a Magnet Release.
Let's begin with a generalization: "The Sacrament" is not for the squeamish or the easily offended.
The film, distributed by Magnet Releasing and set to open in select theaters June 6, is a disturbing tale about a religious movement seeking to establish a utopian community. "The Sacrament" straddles the line between being trailblazing genre cinema and exploitative insolence.
What one takes away from Ti West's new film "The Sacrament" depends largely upon expectations.
West has developed a reputation. His previous directorial jobs have included films such as "Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever," "The Innkeepers" and "The House of the Devil" - all works firmly rooted in traditional horror. "The Sacrament" also happens to be co-produced by Eli Roth, another filmmaker customarily connected with the genre - guilt by association. With those two names figuring heavily in promotional material marketing the film, horror aficionados might be expecting something a bit more conventional.
But "The Sacrament" is anything but conventional. West's film employs a crafty variation on the found-footage technique, introducing a group of documentary filmmakers as his protagonists. As the film opens, a block of text appears explaining that the enterprise behind the subsequent footage, Vice, is a "New York City based multimedia company" that is "known for covering provocative and controversial stories usually overlooked by the mainstream media." The introduction also states that the company utilizes a style of filmmaking called "immersionism."
West didn't fabricate this part: Vice Media Inc. actually exists. The real company is based in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. Its Facebook page describes Vice as "a global media channel focusing on investigative journalism and enlightening videos about everything from world news, travel, art, drugs, politics, sports, fashion, sex, and super cute animals." Obviously, West's faux documentarians are fictitious as is the scenario into which he hurls his unfortunate characters.
Actually the scenario isn't exactly invented, either. The tragic, true-life subject matter upon which the story is loosely based is one of the most gruesome episodes in contemporary history.
Most audience members will recognize the allusions as the film progresses.
In the opening clips, Patrick (Kentucker Audley), one of the company's photographers, explains that his sister Caroline (Amy Seimetz) has joined a utopian community. Concerned for her welfare, he decides to try to find her - and Vice agrees to accompany him on the journey, expecting to find a hippie commune that would make perfect subject matter for a documentary.
A few scenes later, a helicopter drops them off in the middle of nowhere in a foreign country. A truck transports them through two kilometers of forest to the compound. On the trip in, menacing gentlemen with big guns demand that the crew stop filming.
Eventually, they arrive at Eden Parish, a community led by a shadowy figure called "Father." Father speaks sporadically over a loudspeaker, addressing the residents of the community as his "children."
Initially, everyone the documentarians interview claim Eden Parish is exactly as advertised: a self-sustained rural utopia, comprised of nearly 200 members who consider the outside world sinful. After Sam (AJ Bowen) interviews Father, the situation quickly deteriorates. The film crew finds itself in a race against time to learn the truth and escape to notify the outside world what's really happening in Eden Parish.
After a long, slow boil, once the violence erupts, the body count climbs swiftly and mercilessly. The third act is brutal and stomach-turning and ghastly. What makes it far more effective than any blood-drenched, third-rate slasher flick is that the events depicted are devastatingly analogous to the aforementioned historic event.
In fact, the story is so reminiscent, it sometimes feels a bit inappropriate.
"My goal was to create an elevated genre film that examines the last days in the life of a religious cult," West wrote in his director's notes, included in the press kit provided by Magnet Releasing. "It is rare to find films like these that are more than just cheap thrills aimed at the lowest common denominator. It was important to me not to portray these characters as mindless, psychotic cult members, but as relatable real people who, for many reasons, chose an alternative, and controversial path for their lives. I hope to have created a film that is both scary and socially relevant, one that provokes an audience to think deeply about its content."
"The Sacrament" is far from perfect. Mediocre performances from some members of the ensemble cast conspire with a script that isn't always rational. Some characters are prone to blatantly illogical actions. Some dialogue is exasperatingly transparent. Joe Swanberg, for instance, who portrays Jake, a cameraman, is forced to utter an absurd line about the importance of delivering the footage to the outside world even if he doesn't survive - this, while he's being chased through the woods by those menacing gentlemen with big guns.
Still, West has crafted something quite unique in this progressive film. Gene Jones' unsettling performance as Father is one of the highlights of the film. The excruciating crescendo is difficult to endure but it is unquestionably provocative and powerful.
"The Sacrament" transcends horror, delivering a suspenseful, pertinent tale about the dangers of fanaticism along with an astute warning about the unintended role the media can potentially play in sparking violence simply by filming unpredictable events.
As "The Sacrament" is opening in limited release June 6, it may not appear in any Tampa Bay area theaters any time soon. Those interested in checking out this film can rent it now On Demand, on iTunes and on Amazon Instant Video.
Spoiler alert: For those unfamiliar with the historical event referenced in this review, the film alludes to the 1978 Jonestown massacre involving Jim Jones and the People's Temple. West updates that story, transferring it to the modern era, and inserts the documentary film crew as a means to chronicle the events.
The Jonestown incident was dramatized previously in the 1980 television miniseries "Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones" starring Powers Boothe, Ned Beatty and James Earl Jones. Boothe won the 1980 Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited Series or a Special for his portrayal in the film.