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Movie Review: The Sacrament (TIFF 2013)

Sep. 16, 2013by: Chris Bumbray

PLOT: Two journalists (Joe Swanberg & AJ Bowen) with VICE, follow their friend Patrick (Kentucker Audley) on a trip to visit his sister Caroline (Amy Seimetz) who's joined a cult called Eden Parrish, run by the messianic "Father" (Gene Jones).

REVIEW: THE SACRAMENT is one of the movies that played this year's edition of the Vanguard showcase at TIFF. As the programmers say, Vanguard is like Midnight Madness' hip older brother, with many of the films programmed there having genre elements, although they can't necessarily be defined as horror.

Certainly, THE SACRAMENT seems to fall into that category. Unlike the other horror-cult movie we saw this year (V/H/S 2's jaw-dropping Safe Haven) there's nothing supernatural going on at Eden Parrish, the horror is all reality-based. It's all presented found-footage style as a sort of faux-report for VICE, which at least gives West a credible excuse to have the characters running the camera when things get crazy. Eden Parrish seems more than a little influenced by the notorious Heaven's Gate cult, although West cleverly ramps up the tension early-on by having their compound located in a remote area in the Caribbean, being guarded by men with machine guns. There's only one way out- via helicopter- and once the journalist heroes arrive, they're stuck.

The found-footage gimmick is definitely well-worn by now, but the feature-story approach is relatively novel which helps keep the film from being stale. What really works in THE SACRAMENT's favor is the cast, which is jam-packed with regulars from the Ti West- Adam Wingard circle. Star Joe Swanberg is himself a director, and his cameraman is the more pragmatic of the two journalists. He's off-camera for most of the first half, but West finds clever ways to bring him into the action now and then.

One of my favorite actors of this circle is AJ Bowen, who was unforgettable in a movie called THE SIGNAL which came out a few years ago. This is solid lead role for him, as the family-man journalist who just wants to get home but feels compassion for the obviously brainwashed or frightened cultists. Amy Seimetz (UPSTREAM COLOR) hits a nicely balanced note between being creepy, as the most dedicated of the cultists, while also maintaining some sympathy. However, I wish more time had been given to the other cult members, especially the family from Harlem, who seem a bit too pragmatic to get taken in by this kind of thing.

Like the similarly-themed RED STATE, THE SACRAMENT benefits tremendously from the actor playing the head of the cult. As “father”, character actor Gene Jones is a bit of a revelation. His “aw-shucks”, honey-coated old-timey country-coot demeanor underplays his menace, but he also conveys a compelling shrewd side, shown in a great sequence where Bowen interviews him in front of the cult. He's clearly not playing with a full deck, but he's charismatic in a paternal way.

While it's certainly nothing new as far as found-footage movies go, THE SACRAMENT is nonetheless an intriguing addition to Ti West's growing filmography. The material may be familiar, but it's still pretty compelling stuff. West has a style of his own that's less sophisticated than Wingard's but is effective in that it feels real. The perfect cast helps, and while this isn't one of the more memorable films I saw at the fest, it's still pretty solid. If Magnolia ends up acquiring this, it would made a good VOD rental.

Extra Tidbit: tiff, aith, The Sacrament, Eli Roth, Ti West, cults, AJ Bowen

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