The Sacrament is a low-budget horror story indie-film. It is a fairly straight-forward retelling of the Jonestown tragedy, just updated to modern times and with all the names changed and no congressman along for the ride.
Studio: Worldview Entertainment
Written and directed by: Ti West
Starring: Kentucker Audley (Patrick)
AJ Bowen (Sam)
Joe Swanberg (Jake)
Amy Seimetz (Caroline
Gene Jones (Father)
Run-time: 95 minutes
Official website: magnetreleasing.com/thesacrament
(Warning: Spoilers abound)
Patrick is a fashion photographer for Vice Magazine. He gets a surprise letter from his sister Caroline, who was once a drug addict but now has apparently cleaned herself up thanks to the love and support of a religious commune she has just joined. Patrick’s editor Sam senses a story, so he, Patrick, and a cameraman named Jake grab their passports and fly off to take a look at the place Caroline calls Heaven on Earth. (The location is never stated, other than that it is outside the United States.)
Things start to get sinister when they are met by armed guards from the commune who are openly hostile about the presence of outsiders with video equipment. The crew is grudgingly admitted into Eden Parish, a small agrarian farm-town of 167 residents. Caroline greets them, and while she and Patrick go off to catch up, Sam and Jake start poking around. They interview some (seemingly) random residents, all of whom sing praises of The Parish and its leader, universally referred to as “Father.” Everyone they see is smiling and happy, and a recurring theme they express is relief to be away from the social, racial, and economic inequalities plaguing the modern world.
Father has arranged a large party for the visitors that night, which is when he makes his first film appearance. Turns out that their host is a seemingly friendly, semi-regular good ol’ boy with a thick Southern drawl and a comforting grin. He even consents to a brief interview, during which he does a decent job of dodging Sam’s questions with half-answers and tactful evasions.
During the festivities, one of the residents slips a note to Sam reading “PLEASE HELP US.” Later, a group of parishioners approach him and say that the place is not what it seems. This includes beatings to keep people in line. They beg to come with the journalists when they leave the next day. Abruptly, armed guards break this up.
Sam, Jake, and Patrick have a worried, sleepless night, and the next morning find more than a few residents with packed luggage hoping to hitch a ride with them.
Jake goes to the local airstrip to talk to the pilot about how many extra people they can take. Suddenly, shots ring out as parish guards begin sniping at them. The pilot is wounded, and Jake makes it off into the surrounding forest.
Back at Eden Parish, a scuffle breaks out, and guards subdue Sam and Patrick. The camera falls to the ground, and Father walks askew into view. “Take the camera,” he tells Caroline, “I want you to film this. It’s important.” What she films is Father’s final sermon, intercut with attendants pouring poison into giant vats of fruit punch. They fill Dixie cups and syringes, and while passing them out, Father gives his farewell performance. He assures his flock that the journalists were planning a smear piece that would have gone beyond giving them unwanted attention – it would have inevitably led to their end.
We knew this day might come. We talked about it and we planned for it. Some of the children have already been given the potion. Don’t wait to be murdered, don’t wait to be struck down like dogs. Take your drink and lay down your life with your family. If we can’t live our life this way, what Earthly life is worth living? This is the last sacrament, children.
Jake stumbles out of the jungle to find everyone dead or dying. Guards are shooting the uncooperative. Caroline forcibly injects Patrick with a cyanide syringe, then douses herself with gasoline and lights herself. Jake finds Sam held prisoner in Father’s lodgings. Father blames them for everyone’s deaths, then gives himself a magnum mouthpiece and blows his own brains out.
Jake frees Sam, and they manage to evade the gun-wielding guards to make it back to the airfield. The pilot’s wounds turn out to be serious, but not fatal, and he is able to chopper them away to safety.
Roll credits, with still photography of Eden Parish before and after.
According to IMDb, two retired Harlem Globetrotters were extras. (I haven’t independently verified this, but there’s a scene where Jake shoots hoops with some Parishioners, so it’s certainly plausible.)
The writer/director/major domo on this, Ti West, is an American film director who is carving out his niche in the low-budget supernatural horror genre. His other credits include The House of the Devil, The Roost, and The Inkeepers.
Don’t worry: I’ve never heard of them either.
West was born in 1980, two years after Jonestown. Presumably his target demographic is younger Gen-Y/Millennials who aren’t up on their history and thus wouldn’t know the events that inspire the story.
The film is ostensibly “found footage” shot by Jake and Patrick, though it has obviously been edited (presumably by Sam after-the-fact) into a “documentary,” complete with a creepy ambient soundtrack. In an interview with a now-defunct online film magazine, West commented on this:
I think it made sense for this content because this content was steeped enough in realism and video journalism that it made sense to present it in that way, in this sort of realistic vibe. Also in reference to Jonestown, NBC was there filming the night before the mass suicide to the point where the cameraman was even shot while filming. So it’s a unique story that does apply to it, and also to make this movie not in this perspective, not in a documentary style would have taken twice as long and twice as much money. So there’s a slight practicality too.
I’ll skip all the obvious jokes about Father being played by an actor named Gene Jones. No need to thank me, I’m a giver.
“Character development” isn’t one of this film’s strong points, and this is especially true with Father. Next to nothing is revealed about his past, other than his real name is Charles Anderson Reed. He admits he is willing to die for his beliefs, but those beliefs are never actually elaborated on or detailed. He does quote from the New Testament a couple of times and thus is presumably Christian, but otherwise his theology is completely skimmed over. Yeah, there’s hints of “mysticism”: he knows Sam’s wife is pregnant, but Jake diagnoses this to someone overhearing a conversation and reporting it back. Instead, we get sketchy paranoia – Father admits he thinks “government agencies” are after him, for instance. He is also not above pimping out two nubile members of his flock to Patrick in an attempt to woo him into the fold, plus it is heavily implied that he is both having sex with and giving drugs to Caroline. Indeed, right before shooting himself we see him snort a couple lines of some drug.
Jones’s performance of Father is surprisingly subtle: instead of an over-the-top rabid evangelist, he is consistently calm, cool, and lucid. Depending on your point of view, this either adds just the right touch of subtle menace to the character, or it makes you wonder, “What’s the appeal?”
So: My Two Cents
The Sacrament is better than I thought it would be, but since I expected it to suck like a starving leech, that’s not saying all that much. Despite this, I tried to give it the benefit of the doubt. By the finale, I had mixed feelings: didn’t love it, didn’t hate it. Ultimately, though, it just left me cold. I never cared about the fates of any of the characters, and found myself watching this more to see if West would toss in some type of twist. Nope: this is pretty much paint-by-numbers, and from a fairly limited color palate.
Part of me wants to give West the benefit of the doubt: you can tell that he’s at least trying. Trying and Succeeding are two different things, though.
I had two crucial problems with The Sacrament: the plot and the presentation.
Plot problems are what one would expect: it is painfully apparent within fifteen minutes where this film is headed, and it does the added disservice of bringing nothing “new” to the table. Father is a generic stereotype cult leader whose ideology is never seriously explored. Likewise, his followers are faceless automatons. Granted, there are attempts to talk to the locals, but Caroline later reveals these were carefully staged for Sam and Jake, so we never really get to know anyone or why they were there. This makes any type of sympathy with their situation next to impossible, so their deaths don’t register any real emotion with the viewer.
Much of The Sacrament is presented as “found footage.” This is a cinematic style I have never warmed to: it strikes me as lazy filmmaking. Worse, all those shaky camera shots tend to distract me back into reality by reminding me that I am watching a movie.
Despite that, The Sacrament was competently made, and the performances were okay – nothing stellar, hit and miss, but adequate enough. It is not a bad film, but, this is not a particularly good movie, either, especially for its genre. One of its greatest faults is its inherent predictability, which precludes it from having any hook to make one want to re-watch it. Once was more than enough.
C+… maybe even a B− if you’re feeling generous. I’m not. Caveat Vigil.
(Matthew Thomas Farrell is a regular contributor to this website. His other article in this edition of the jtr bulletin is No Changing Lanes: The Reissue of The Strongest Poison. His earlier writings for this site are collected here. He can be contacted at email@example.com.)