Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Blogorium Review: The Sacrament

 On the off chance you haven't heard about The Sacrament, it's the newest film from Ti West (The House of the Devil) - his first feature in the three years since The Innkeepers. If you've been keeping up with him, watching his features and contributions of V/H/S and The ABCs of Death, this is exciting news. Unfortunately, I'm going to have to temper it a bit for you, because The Sacrament might have been a tense thriller, but it isn't. Instead, it's fraught with bad decisions in the narrative structure, in adapting its source material, and most of all, its central conceit: the dreaded "found footage" subgenre.

 Patrick (Kentucker Audley, Ain't Them Bodies Saints) is a fashion photographer in New York who hasn't seen his sister in a long time. She had serious drug problems, and while cleaning up, she joined a religious community in rural Mississippi. While relaying the story to friends, Sam (AJ Bowen, The Signal), a reporter for an online news site, gets the idea to film their reunion for a story. Patrick's sister Caroline (Amy Seimetz, Upstream Color) sent a letter explaining that they've left the country to create "heaven on Earth" without interference, so Patrick, Sam, and cameraman Jake (Joe Swanberg, Drinking Buddies) land outside of their undisclosed location. After passing through a heavily guarded entrance, they find themselves in Eden Parish, a community that seems too good to be true, where everyone is happy and self sufficient, under the protective watch of Father (Gene Jones, Oz the Great and Powerful). But all is not what it seems in Eden Parish - Caroline is behaving... strangely, and Father has his own plans for the journalists.

 If you know anything about Jim Jones or the Jonestown Massacre*, not only does this synopsis sound very familiar, but I'm sorry to say that you already know exactly how The Sacrament is going to play out. Other than changing the names and moving the time period from the 1970s to the present, there's very little variation on the basic story of what happened to that religious sect, all the way down to their paranoia about the government and even the method by which the Massacre ends. There are hints that something else might be afoot earlier in the film, but those plot threads are abandoned quickly or given more mundane explanations (in particular what Caroline wants with Patrick). If you don't know anything about Jonestown, you might be a little less tuned in to where things are going (unless you watch the trailer, which gives everything away), but the disappointment that West didn't do anything interesting at all with the story is still going to dull the experience.

 West reunites with some of his fellow cast members from You're Next (he has a cameo in the film and SPOILER a pretty good death scene): Bowen, Seimetz, and Swanberg. Beyond the main characters, there isn't much in the way of Eden Parish's faithful that make much of an impression beyond basic "types": the nurse, the old lady, the teenage boys, the little girl who doesn't talk, the suspicious mother. They don't enhance the world West is building, but instead just serve a purpose in moving the story along to its inevitable conclusion. It's a shame, because one of the things I've really enjoyed about West's films are the characters, who you sympathize with and want to spend time around.

 Maybe it makes up for it that The Sacrament is not what we've come to know as a "Ti West" film, at least based on his last two (and generally, much enjoyed) efforts. The hand-held, shaky camerawork brings a sense of immediacy that's a stark contrast to the tracking shots and long takes he employed to such great effect in The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers. It's an admirable step away from what he's known for, an extension of his segment in V/H/S (admittedly, one of my least favorite sections of that anthology), so in some sense it's commendable West is stepping outside of what he's known for in the horror genre. That said, "found footage" may not have been the best choice to branch out into.

 To West's credit, he finds a way to avoid most of the problems with "found footage" by appropriating Vice News (with their permission, I would gather), a media organization that goes into areas of conflict or otherwise "verboten" places to cover news stories that wouldn't be featured otherwise. Their handheld style works well within the "found footage" tropes, and it explains why someone would continue filming well past the point they should. But it's a double-edged sword, because The Sacrament isn't strictly "found footage" - early in the film, it's clear that the footage we're seeing has already been professionally edited with informational text overlaid on the image. While it may not be immediately apparent, you slowly realize that whatever happens to the protagonists, somebody made it out and cobbled this footage into a Vice "report," which robs the second half of the film of much of its tension.

 It also creates a massive plot hole later in the film, when Patrick loses his camera (that he's been shooting B-Roll on) and Father asks Caroline to continue filming ("this is important"). At this point, Jake has been separated from Sam and Patrick, so he has one camera and Caroline now has the other. And yet, as Father begins talking to the people of Eden Parish about their dire circumstances, West begins switching to a shot / reverse shot editing style that Caroline couldn't possibly be filming. Even if she somehow filmed all of Father's speech and then turned around and filmed the community long enough for Jake to later edit it together, it doesn't make sense that she would think to do that in the moment.

 Honestly, I began to wonder if The Sacrament had switched over from "found footage" to a traditional film, because there was no rational explanation for the editing in the last thirty minutes of the film, and that isn't even the biggest plot hole. By necessity, I'm going to have to go into SPOILER territory, but if you already know how the Jonestown Massacre turned out, it's not going to surprise you much. Jake finds Sam, still alive, in Father's cabin, and Patrick's camera is on a table, filming (for some reason). Sam is tied up and Father is blaming them for his decision to kill everybody with the poisoned Kool-Aid, and then Father kills himself. Jake unties Sam, and they leave - without picking up Patrick's camera. Half of the movie was filmed on Patrick's camera - footage we've already seen, and they just leave it there.

 Now, you could argue that they came back to Eden Parish and the camera wasn't somehow confiscated by local authorities or the FBI and that Jake and Sam managed to edit it back together, if not for the fact that the guard who saves them by shooting another guard promises he's going to "burn the whole thing down" once they've left. Since the office is already on fire after Caroline's self-immolation (Jake makes a point of filming the burning building), there's no reason not to take the guard at his word, and the final text on-screen indicates that "Sam and Jake are the only known survivors." So how, exactly, did we watch everything Patrick filmed from the interview with Father until the end of the movie?

 I don't want you to leave this review with an entirely sour taste in your mouth, and it is worth pointing out that West does generate some palpable tension in the middle of The Sacrament. It's largely due to the appearance of Gene Jones - the other half of No Country for Old Men's "friend-o" scene - as Father: he embodies the presence and charisma needed for a "cult leader," one you can feel immediately, and Sam's interview quickly turns into Father's critique of their presence. There's a sense of menace in that sequence that West excels at, and if he could have infused more of The Sacrament with that unease, it might have overcome some of the structural deficiencies. Bowen and Swanberg are pretty good in what are mostly reactive roles, and Seimetz does a good job at masking Caroline's intentions early in the film. It's just that most of it collapses as the story enters its third act.

 The Sacrament isn't my least favorite Ti West movie (that would still be Cabin Fever 2, which I doubt a "director's cut" could salvage), but it's the one I'm the least likely to revisit. That's a shame, because I had high hopes for it, and I'm still a big fan of The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers. It should be interesting to see where he heads next, stylistically and from a narrative perspective, but as somebody who studied Jonestown extensively in college, The Sacrament just didn't work for me. I'm not sure that it will for other West fans, but you might give it a shot if no other new movie sounds appealing. Not much of a recommendation, I know, but it's the best I can give you for this one.

* I'm deliberately not linking to anything related to Jonestown on the off-chance you have no idea what that is and want to watch The Sacrament. I'm starting to think it's the only way this movie might be interesting, from a narrative perspective.

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