Description from Netflix:
Using "found footage", this unnverving thriller recounts the tragic story of an exiled Christian cult and the grisly events that transpire after three journalists - one looking for his missing sister - arrive at the commune.
Lisa and I had a rousing debate over the term "found footage". In some movies, it's an accurate descriptor. In others, not so much. Because of that, I will refer to this movie as being in the "first person" subgenre of horror. I'll try to remember to do this for all films in this subgenre going forward, but I make no promises. Old habits die hard.
My thoughts on Ti West are pretty well known at this point. I hated House of the Devil, The Innkeepers, and his segment in V/H/S. I haven't seen Cabin Fever 2 in years, but I don't remember liking it. I haven't seen his earliest work, mainly because I have no desire to see them.
With that being said, I kept an open mind going into this one. As I said in my review of The Innkeepers, Ti West knows how to make a movie look good, so I figured this would be visually interesting if nothing else.
I also knew that this film was, at the very least, a nod to the events at Jonestown in 1978. As is the case with any religious cult, those events have long interested and horrified me. I even went so far as to listen to The Jonestown Death Tape (I do not recommend this).
What I found in The Sacrament was not so much a nod to the events of Jonestown as it was a modern day retelling. Many events were exactly the same as those that occurred at Jonestown, right down to some very specific details.
It almost lost me in the early-going. While it had a nice set-up that kicked off the film quickly, it also featured a number of common first person horror problems: camera shaking around, people repeatedly yelling, "Turn the camera off," etc. I don't have a problem with first person movies: when done properly, they can be terrifying. The audience doesn't have to find someone to identify with on screen, because they are essentially in the movie. However, when done poorly, the problems are nearly impossible to ignore. If these problems are a minor blip over the course of the movie, it's easy enough to gloss over. But if it's a problem throughout, it drags the entire film down (looking at you, Hud, for repeatedly screaming "Rob!" in Cloverfield). The annoyances at the beginning threatened to derail the film for me. Thankfully, none of these lasted very long.
That's not to say no first-person problems reared their heads. The one that really got me was the excessive dialog (this is the first time this complaint has come up about a Ti West film). It's a downside of a first-person movie. To make it feel like real people in a real scenario, characters are forced to react as normal people would. That means lots of questions about what they're seeing, and talking about what they had just seen. It's a realistic depiction of what would happen if I were in that situation, but it kind of suffocated the film. We see some horrifying and confusing things. Instead of laying back a little and letting the audience process what they have just witnessed, we are bombarded with questions from the characters. "Did you just see that? What was that?" then immediately answering those questions. Every emotion was vocalized. Every question answered before the audience has had time to fully process everything.
Again, I realize this is to make the events feel more realistic, but it really hurt the film as a whole. They needed to let the movie breathe a little more. Let the audience sit with what they have just seen. This was my major problem with the film. If you were to read my notes, you would see the phrase “LET IT BREATHE!” repeated ad nauseam.
There was also a pretty big (if nit-picky) problem later on, but it spoils a pretty major plot point, so I won't get into that here.
I also had a problem with our main protagonist (Sam) in the beginning. As soon as he got to Eden Parish (the Jonestown-esque commune), he immediately started looking down on its inhabitants. He was nice when trying to interview them, but, behind their backs, he was rolling his eyes. It didn't get the character off on the right foot. Thankfully, this didn't last too long.
There were a handful of moments that saw the plot (and paranoia of our characters) driven forward by some pretty large logic leaps. The major offender was when Sam finally got a chance to sit down for an interview with Father (the Jim Jones of Eden Parish). The interview is going well, if a bit odd, when Father suddenly asks if Sam loves his wife. For no reason whatsoever, Sam is immediately rattled. He's wearing a wedding ring, so it shouldn't be a shock that Father knows about his marital status. Sam's reaction to that simple question shook me out of the scene a little, which is a shame.
The interview is one of the best scenes in the movie. It's the first time we get to see Father, and it’s a terrific introduction. He isn't overly charismatic, but it's easy to see why he has as many followers as he does. He's manipulative in a way that doesn't seem manipulative. He deflects and redirects questions with ease; in doing so he assures himself of only answering questions that fit his agenda. He's a kindly older gentleman who can lead with a smile and some words about fulfilling the will of God. Father is played to perfection by Gene Jones. It would have been easy to have made Father into an arm-waving tent revival preacher, but they wisely went with a more understated vibe.
At some point, we begin to realize the people are brainwashed. (Personally, I assumed as much before the movie started even started.) That was, indeed, the case. As we meet the residents of Eden Parish, we get a better picture of how this happened. The best way to brainwash is to find people at their lowest, gain their trust, and promise them something better. That was the case with pretty much everyone who ended up at Eden Parish. Caroline - a sister of one of the cameramen, and the reason they were able to gain entrance to Eden Parish - suffered with drug abuse for years. Two brothers who grew up in a violent community. An elderly widow who had nothing after her husband died. These were people at their lowest, and Father preyed on that to build his idyllic community. He convinced them to sell off all their worldly possessions to fund Eden Parish. He cut his followers off from all communication with the outside world, so he could control the flow of information about the outside world. Father’s paranoia became their very real fear. These people saw a lack of communication with the outside world as freedom, when really it just allowed Father to create a prison for them.
To make things even more chilling, I don't believe Father was malicious. I truly believe he was doing what he thought was right. That makes him something worse than a con man: that makes him a monster.
It’s worth noting that all of this is in line with what Jim Jones did. It may have made this film easier to watch if Father was a fictional character. To know that there was a man and a place almost exactly like this made for a supremely unnerving viewing experience.
There were some creepy scenes scattered throughout the film (I kind of enjoyed the addition of the familiar "girl in the white dress and long hair" horror trope), but none of them were of the jump-scare variety. They were born of the environment, not manufactured out of thin air.
The film moves along at a pretty good clip, dragging a creeping dread and paranoia around with it. By the time everything came to a head in the final act, the madness that ensued was well-earned.
If you know anything about Jonestown, you have a pretty good idea of how this ends (even down to some very specific details). It did not disappoint. It was horrifying and off-putting. There were a couple dumb character moments that threatened to overtake the ending, but, thankfully, they didn't.
After the movie was over, I wasn't overly impressed. "My favorite Ti West movie, not that it's saying too much," I grumbled to myself.
But this one really stuck with me. Certain scenes are impossible to get out of my head. A couple days away from it, I think I really liked it. As I mentioned above, Gene Jones was terrific as Father, and, after a rough opening, AJ Bowen turned in a terrific performance as Sam.
It's not a perfect film, but it's definitely worth watching. Throw your preconceived notions about Ti West and first-person horror out the window and watch this for what it is: a horrifying portrait of darkness disguised as light and hope. This is the worst of mankind, masquerading as the best. This isn’t the monster in the closet or the zombie shambling down the street. This is something that could be in your hometown. This is Jones. This is Koresh. This is Heaven's Gate. This is Solar Temple. This is Manson. This is Gacy. This is Dahmer. This is real life, and it’s one of the more unnerving films I have seen in recent memory.