ReelGood isn’t drinking the Kool-Aid.
The Sacrament is the latest film by horror director Ti West, creator of the excellent House of the Devil and the less impressive The Innkeepers. It’s a found footage piece, presenting itself as a VICE documentary. It follows a young journalist, Patrick (Kentucker Audley), who receives a letter from his long-estranged junkie sister, inviting him to visit her at an evangelical Christian settlement called Eden Parish, somewhere in the Congo. Patrick travels there via helicopter with two other VICE employees, and they enter what seems to be a sanctuary of peace and fulfilment. It’s all due to a man called the Father, whose avuncular pronouncements are regularly conveyed by loudspeakers to the residents of the Parish. Patrick is granted permission to interview the Father; naturally, there’s a deep darkness to both Father and the Parish which Patrick and his companions soon discover, to their detriment.
The film is well-acted and very well put together. The Parish is a clean, calm, ostensibly paradisal place—but there’s also something immediately unsettling about its bareness and silence, suggesting lives and souls in stasis. Gene Jones is excellent as the Father, an overweight, heavy-breathing false prophet who regards his flock imperturbably from behind dark sunglasses. The best scenes in the film are the interview between the Father and Patrick, in which Jones establishes precisely why despairing people might give themselves over to the Father—and a brief scene at the film’s climax, when the Father is confronted with the result of his lies and narcissism, and is momentarily struck dumb with astonishment.
The issue with The Sacrament isn’t its execution but its conception. The film is plainly—and this is apparent from the trailer, so I’m not ruining anything—a direct retelling of the Jonestown tragedy, in which nearly a thousand people died at the command of cult leader Jim Jones, mostly from drinking poisoned Kool-Aid. As a result, there’s a definite lack of tension in The Sacrament. Certain characters might live or die, depending on the vagaries of the plot, but it’s plain from the opening moments of the film that Eden Parish will be destroyed. Instead of suspense, there’s only escalating dread and inevitability. The Father promises an easy death and eternal life, and we’re shown convulsing bodies and poisoned babies. There isn’t much to take away from this except a lingering sense of nihilism and despair. And West reveals little about the nature of faith or cultish devotion. The characters are believable, but lack in depth—particularly Patrick and his friends, who are paper-thin New York hipster types.
The Sacrament is sufficiently well-made to be worth a watch. The climax in particular is undeniably affecting. However, I was left hoping that West will make a film which fulfils some of the promise of House of the Devil—a frightening film, but one with a lot of pleasure in it too. There isn’t any pleasure in The Sacrament, only the stony reminder that credulousness and evil tend to find each other.