If horror has become a springboard for filmmakers to move on to projects beyond the boundaries of the genre, Ti West catapults himself to the next level with The Sacrament. A chilling psychological study disguised as another of the director’s deliberately-paced thrillers, West finds a found-footage conceit that actually makes sense, and then populates it with characters who make real journeys and genuinely earn audience sympathies.
Although the film will entertain criticisms of exploiting real-life tragedies, The Sacrament is less a recreation of actual events than an examination of a wholly terrifying, alien mindset that proves West’s bona fides as one of the most ambitious and talented filmmakers working today.
A.J. Bowen (You’re Next) plays Sam, a somewhat predictably self-aggrandizing journalist for Vice who embarks on a trip to a remote community called Eden Parish. With photographer Patrick (Kentucker Audley) and cameraman Jake (Joe Swanberg), they're looking for Patrick’s sister Caroline (Amy Seimetz). Initially planning to document the trip as the publication’s latest “experiential” report, Sam immediately meets with resistance from the community’s machine-gun-toting protectors. But Patrick brokers a deal with Caroline for them to film their experiences, and their interviews produce a sunny portrait of life disengaged from modern constraints that actually seems appealing.
Eventually setting an interview with Father (Gene Jones), Eden Parish’s charismatic leader, Sam begins to get rattled by the community’s almost hypnotic serenity. But after residents quietly start approaching the threesome to ask for help, they quickly realize there is much more to the community than it initially appears, and soon must fight to escape – not just with the footage from their expedition, but their very lives.
As with West’s past two films, the machinery of The Sacrament’s plot is remarkably simple – like House of the Devil and The Innkeepers, less clichéd than beautifully straightforward. The pretext of immersive journalism – particularly via Vice, where “batshit” is a starting point for its reporting – not only provides a legitimate reason to film in the first place, but legitimizes the character’s decisions to keep cameras rolling even after danger begins to mount. The result of these clean, elegant choices is that audiences spend no time questioning either the concept of the film or its execution, instead focusing on the characters and the details of their experiences that eventually make their experience – and ours – so unsettling.
As Sam, Bowen maintains a perfect balance between dickish self-glorification and sympathetic open-mindedness, transforming the character from a one-dimensional hipster journalist into a reporter whose preconceptions are shattered, and his own humanity exposed by the process of exploring this deceptively idyllic microcosm. Swanberg, meanwhile, spends much of his time behind the lens, and exudes a cameraman’s lack of vanity even when being asked to participate in the experience.
But while Audley shoulders the responsibility of being Sam’s access point to this mysterious community, his susceptibility to its charms is overshadowed by Seimetz’ performance as his sister, a protector of its values whose fatal mistake is in believing that they are inviolable even when facing the skepticism of the outside world. At the same time, Jones offers an absolutely chilling performance as Father, a monolithic leader whose charisma is equal to his calculation, ably demonstrating how he is able to convince his followers to kowtow to his values and his demands, even if audiences remain understandably doubtful about his motives.
Comparisons to the events of the Jonestown Massacre notwithstanding, West’s portrait of Eden’s Parish aims less for a sort of factual verisimilitude than an honest, unvarnished, but entirely sympathetic look at the people who subscribe to its sort of cult like groupthink. Never looking down at its residents, and even allocating a large portion of the film to detailing its virtues, West depicts the remote community as a physical embodiment of a mindset – a refuge from external influences that eventually becomes as much of a prison as the things those people went there to escape.
But perhaps most crucially – whether audiences perceive this as a strength or weakness of the film – the film is only incidentally “horror.” Not unlike, say, Simon Rumley’s astonishing Red White & Blue, the foundations for a terrifying ordeal are there, and its villains plainly recognizable. But West tackles his material in a way that it thoughtful, sensitive and dramatic, but never sensationalistic, allowing his characters to seem to truly exist, change, and be moved, without feeling as if their behavior is pre-ordained by the screenwriting boilerplate that seems to drive their counterparts.
All of which is why The Sacrament is a truly mesmerizing film – a raw, honest and incredibly powerful look at a very real sort of evil – whose success lies in transcending its genre. And its maturity would seem to suggest that Ti West has done so as well, although if there’s one thing horror needs more of, it’s filmmakers like him, who can create recognizable but unique and deeply moving experiences that add up to much more than the sum of their parts.
Film Score: 4/5