‘The Sacrament’ Review
'The Sacrament,' Ti West's follow-up to 2011's 'The Innkeepers,' feels like a more mature -- albeit still slightly flawed -- outing. A trio of reporters from bad boy news brand Vice head to a cultish compound in Africa to investigate when one of their sisters sends a mysterious letter beckoning him to visit. Inspired by Jonestown (as well as the Branch Davidians and numerous other cults), 'The Sacrament' isn't quite what you expect from West, known for his slow burn horror and sharp, stinging third acts ... and that's a good thing.
'The Sacrament' is the next step in the evolution of Ti West -- 'House of the Devil' gave us a simmering, retro horror story that built to an insane late third-act climax. 'The Innkeepers' gave us some surprising character depth, and organic emotional development that lent the film serious stakes; he stuck the knife in slowly and then twisted it violently. 'The Sacrament' isn't as slow-going as his previous two efforts, but the depth and emotion is still there, heightening the horror considerably.
Those who are familiar with Jim Jones and the Jonestown massacre in Guyana will know exactly where the film is heading, but it doesn't ease the pain of what's to come. Reporters Sam (A.J. Bowen, who had a small role in 'House of the Devil'), Jake (filmmaker Joe Swanberg), and Patrick (Kentucker Audley) head off to Africa when Jake's recovering addict sister Caroline (Amy Seimetz) sends a letter assuring him she's found peace and happiness, with convenient but vague instructions on where she's found it. Sam, sensing the kind of radical story Vice is known for boldly following, leads his colleagues off to investigate, and almost immediately upon landing at the compound, something feels wrong.
Eden Parish, led by an enigmatic man called Father (Gene Jones, the gas station attendant from 'No Country for Old Men'), is a religious hippie commune built from the ground up by the congregation of devout believers. These people will do anything for a man who asked them to give up their homes and worldly goods and donate all of their money to his cause. Of course, at first Eden Parish seems like a utopia of sorts, but then someone passes the reporters a note asking for help, and the film becomes a gripping and grim race for survival.
West knows that the story is nothing new, which is why he focuses on building characters and relationships that matter. In a short span of time, strangers become characters we care about, and their performances, along with West's calculated pacing, give us searing, unsettling moments. It's almost like watching someone turn and un-turn a screw -- West is deliberate, vacillating between slowly and methodically turning the narrative screw and violently spinning it around and around. He knows when to use restraint and when less is more. The third act is only hampered by a diversion involving Swanberg's camera operator in the woods, which distracts from the tense happenings back at the Eden Parish pavilion. Otherwise, West is methodical and allows his characters to do much of the heavy lifting -- and because of it, the film has moments of startling emotion you don't expect from a horror film.
It's certainly all very grim and tragic, but West pulls back just enough before it becomes hopelessly nihilistic. The story is sad enough on its own without the director playing a merciless, exploitative god.
West uses the found footage angle in an inventive way, and while the film certainly would have been great without it, it helps the audience anchor the narrative to something tangible in the real world. Vice does some incredible reporting from around the globe, but it comes with a certain brand of self-aware cockiness, which Bowen captures well as Sam -- here's a guy whose privilege can't let him relate to the places and people around the world that his organization covers, but rather than trump him up with narcissism, Bowen plays him as naive, if a little self-involved. Seimetz, who plays Jake's sister Caroline, continues to prove that she's one of the most important new(ish) actresses to watch. Following her fascinating turns in 'Upstream Color' and 'The Killing,' Seimetz explores a more manic side.
With 'The Sacrament,' Ti West once again proves that a little plot goes a long way and that horror can be -- and is -- more effective when it focuses on character. Without relatable characters, what does your audience have to care about? What could they possibly be scared of? When we are able to identify with something or someone, it taps into a very visceral part of our brains because we often fear that which is familiar. West also proves that horror can draw from real-world scenarios and give us surprisingly profound moments.