PLOT: As both a personal mission and journalistic VICE piece, Patrick goes on a search to find his missing sister with his two friends Sam and Jake, only to happen upon a rural cult-commune lead by The Father.
REVIEW: After stamping his name on the haunted-house subgenre with his last and likely best flick, THE INNKEEPERS, horror-hipster Ti West returns to explore the insidious inner-workings of a religious cult with his new horror joint THE SACRAMENT - a movie that's quite effective in its execution, despite its threadbare plot serving ludicrous story turns at times, not to mention its low-budgetary constraints and amateurish mockumentary filming style. I liked the film, but more for the way it made me feel than it made me think. I say that because the more I ponder what some of the characters could have done, compared to what they actually do in the movie, things disintegrate pretty fast. But if you suspend logic during a few key moments in the film and just let the whole documentary experience wash over you, objectively, you're bound to find THE SACRAMENT not only an indefatigably jarring time of terror, but one of the best "found-footage" efforts to hit in some time. Despite its script misgivings, I casually recommend checking it out!
Patrick (Kentucker Audley) is out to find his troubled sister Caroline (Amy Seimetz). After a harsh stint with drug abuse, word is Caroline has retreated to a rural out-of-country compound known as Eden Parish - a free-range paradise for a wide swath of woefully wicked souls in much need of spiritual ablution. There, Caroline seeks the solace of The Father (Gene Jones), a charismatic charlatan peddling his own particular brand of bat-shit brainwash. Patrick, a videographer for VICE, recruits his two reporter pals Sam (AJ Bowen) and Jake (Joe Swanberg) and three hop a plane to the undisclosed locale. They figure, what the hell, if we film our trip and happen to find a compelling story, all the better. So already you have the built-in justification for the on-the-fly, hand-held docu-style that almost the entire film adheres to. Good enough for me, as it instantly erases the invariable question raised with most found-footage flicks...who is filming and why the hell do they continue to let the camera roll? If you're going to format your film around this conceit, giving a good reason for it is half the battle. THE SACRAMENT gains points by undercutting that criticism immediately. Now we can just focus on the story and the performances.
Things are amiss with Eden Parish right from the jump. When our heroic trio arrive, via chopper and long truck-ride, the dudes are instantly met by armed guards posted in front of a gated entrance. Not so friendly. Then Caroline comes jaunting along, overly ecstatic to see her brother, inviting him and his pals inside the commune and showing them to their makeshift cabins. Things seem idyllic at first, almost suspiciously so. Young and old folk alike - black, white, red, yellow - all living harmoniously in nature...harvesting their own crops, playing games, living off the land, etc. Yet things grow weirder. A mute little girl roams around the premises, in great dismay, her mother guarded and paranoid. Soon Sam arranges to host an interview with The Father himself, and does so at night, in front of the entire Parish, which really springboards the bulk of the action leading into the second half of the film.
I won't spoil too much more, but suffice it to say, when the electric Gene Jones is onscreen, the movie is at its best. Jones has a charmed twang to his voice, a hospitable southern tongue, that at first, oozes a commanding gravitas. But the more he speaks, the more we can start to tell The Father isn't much more than a howling huckster whose primary talent is telling people what they want to hear, even if it's diametrically opposed to their best interest. For instance, when Sam probes the causes for creating Eden Parish in the first place, The Father turns the tables on Sam and ends up indicting the media as much as he answers the questions in earnest. He hijacks the interview utterly disarming Sam from doing his job. No doubt, The Father is one dodgy motherf*cker, whose greatest promise is in the power of persuasion. In the end, we see him employ such power on behalf of ultimate evil. If the title doesn't tip you off, you're bound to feel you like you just got socked in the gut when the final reel unspools. And even if you have an inkling, the impact is still bound to leave you winded!
If there's a main gripe to be had though, it's that THE SACRAMENT's story is too one-note, the plotting too paper-thin, that it really just feels like one long, drawn-out single-act. A pretty grueling, visceral and terrifying one, sure, but it still feels sleight and underdeveloped for a 95-minute feature. The script isn't very layered or multidimensional in that regard. Yes, we do get a few character shadings, Sam for example has a wife and newborn he's eager to get back to, but outside of that, I didn't find any of the main characters all that compelling, likeable, or even wise in their decision making. In fact, the people I felt most for in the film were the faithfully blind patrons of Eden Parish. The ones unquestionably devoted to the cause. To ultimately see those poor saps get duped, exploited and psychologically violated - that's where most of the sympathy derived from, regardless of what actually happens to the protagonists. And what happens to them I'd argue is deserved, mainly for the poor lines of recourse taken. These dudes aren't very shrewd, and their fate is reflective of such.
But in all, I recommend THE SACRAMENT for its entertaining immersion of the world it created, and the relentlessly escalating terror therein. Even if the story is a bit gaunt and one-dimensional, even slow and absurd at times, Gene Jones gives a Michael Parks in RED STATE kind of performance that's equal parts creepy and charismatic. It's more than good enough to give a look, particularly since it evokes a real-life monstrosity - morally depraved human beings - that impose their will and flex their power every day. THE SCARAMENT is frightening because its villain isn't one of supernatural origin or extraterrestrial import, it's a human being. A sick, power-starved human being that wields his will over the people like a cudgel. And because of that basic distinction, the film is believable. And just as believable as its antagonist, so too is the docu-style conceit the film employs around its premise. I bought the journalistic, found-footage angle just as much as I bought The Father character, and aside from a few lulls and a head-scratch or two, THE SACRAMENT reaffirms Ti West as a name to keep tabs on moving forward.