Directed by: Ti West
Written by: Ti West
Cast: Joe Swanberg, AJ Bowen, Amy Seimetz, Gene Jones, Kentucker Audley
Ti West’s newest film The Sacrament was not what I expected. It was one of the few films playing at Fantastic Fest that I knew anything about in advance. I knew it had Ti West’s buddies AJ Bowen and Joe Swanberg as the male leads, a pair of investigative reporters from Vice setting out on a new immersive project. I knew it involved a cult. I had reason to believe that in this film nothing was as it seemed. All of this is true, but at the same time there is a lot more and a lot less going on in this film.
I’ll start with the more. This is a well executed “found footage” (I hate that phrase) film nearly on the same level as Chronicle (the best of the genre). Just like in Chronicle the camera itself is a character in the sense that its wielder walks and talks and shows his own motivations. All of this influences the visual construction of the film. Bowen and Swanberg are compelling as hipster newsies (how could they not be), and their casual familiarity is used in the best possible way.
Bowen’s Sam is the onscreen point man while Swanberg plays Jake the loyal, intrepid camera operator. When their fashion photographer friend Patrick (Kentucker Audley) receives a creepy letter from his sister Caroline (Amy Seimetz) telling him about how she has moved on from a sober living community to some new off the grid society, the two journalists decide to accompany Patrick on his trip to visit his sister. Their goal is to get some prime footage of the unusual in action (it’s all very on brand for Vice). The three of them arrive in a jungle (the particular location is never made clear) where they are confronted by armed guards and after much negotiating granted entrance to Eden Parish.
The compound is beautiful, and after interviews with many community members seems, at least ostensibly, to live up to the name. The mastermind behind this sustainable of the radar arrangement is an old man known only as Father (Gene Jones). Jones is the heart of this film. As great as everyone else is the ominous charisma Jones exudes defines the sense of foreboding that West uses in place of shock scares and gore. Sam and Jake start to come around on Eden Parish after an interview with Father during which he cites his influences, JFK, RFK, MLK, and Malcolm X, and explains the goal of the parish which is to provide a safe place for those that society has rejected.
Just when it looks like everything is ok a young girl delivers a note that reads, “please help us.” From there, things predictably adopt a dangerous trajectory. It’s here that the less comes to the fore. As well executed as the bulk of this movie is, when it starts to reach its crescendo it begins to feel rushed. The end doesn’t make entirely clear narrative sense (in fact my friend and I were fighting about how it made any sense at all for about an hour afterward), and doesn’t provide as much background mythology as you want. This film is basically asking the question of what would happen if Vice had been around to cover events like the massacre at Jonestown. It’s an interesting question, but one that doesn’t really get explored beyond the surface level. This movie was very close to being really good, but it couldn’t quite stick the landing.