Friday, May 2, 2014

The Sacrament

Grade: 36/C-

Ti West is the best horror director working today, a filmmaker with an intuitive grasp of composition, rhythm and atmosphere for creating slow-burning tension. The team up of the House of the Devil and The Innkeepers director with extreme horror auteur Eli Roth is an odd one, but Roth’s skill for playing with expectations is wildly underrated, so there was reason to be optimistic about what the pooling of their talents might bring. Yet the two stumble with The Sacrament, an ill-advised excursion into found footage horror that’s both obvious and distasteful.

The film concerns a trio of VICE employees (AJ Bowen, Joe Swanberg, Kentucker Adler) who travel out to the Eden Parish commune in South America to meet Adler’s sister (Amy Seimetz), a recovering drug addict who recently joined up. They find Seimetz happier and healthier than she’s been for some time, and Eden’s other members all praise their leader, Father (Gene Jones) for taking them away from modern society’s poverty, racism and imperialism for a better life. But Father is treated too much as a savior, and the trio soon discovers that a number of members who actually want to leave are being silenced. When they try to intervene, Father is prepared to take more drastic measures.

The film’s cult commune reportedly borrows from a few real-life sources, but the most blatant is the infamous Jonestown Massacre, which saw leader Jim Jones and hundreds of followers commit mass suicide after congressman Leo Ryan found reason to believe not everything was as pleasant as it seemed. This idea isn’t inherently bad, but West doesn't seem to have much of anything new to say about  the events. Gene Jones (best known for playing the lucky coin toss winner in No Country for Old Men) is a good actor, but he’s essentially been asked to play the poster child for superficially gentle but clearly untrustworthy cult leaders; there’s nothing in the character that allows the viewer to understand how a reasonable human being could be swept along by him as they might by Philip Seymour Hoffman’s charismatic figure in The Master or John Hawkes’s persuasive leader in Martha Marcy May Marlene.

What’s worse, the film’s storyline works against West’s considerable chops as a filmmaker. There’s a sense of self-awareness and uncertainty in The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers that allows the protagonists (and, by proxy, us) to second guess whether or not the creepy goings on are all part of our overactive, movie-addled imaginations, which keeps us eager to move along with his films’ patient pace and eagerly wait/dread for the other shoe to drop. Roth’s films, meanwhile, frequently mess with our expectations of which characters have what it takes to make it to the final moment.

Here, the familiarity of the story and obvious telegraphing of what’s waiting in the second half makes West’s slow-burn filmmaking tedious for the first time in his career, as we wait impatiently for the inevitable. There’s nothing unexpected around the corner, and the characters remain frustratingly one-note and beholden to found footage expectations that the guys with the cameras will keep the cameras rolling and will stick around until the very end of the chaos. West also frequently sticks in music cues that would usually be atmospheric under his guidance but instead feel too manipulative against the found footage format. The conversations between the unsettled camera trio, meanwhile, hammer home that we should feel uncomfortable about Father’s pull over his people, as if it weren’t blatant already.

West is still able to wrench out a few impressive moments: there’s still some undeniable tension in waiting to see exactly how everything’s going to unfold, his careful reveals of figures in the night (a little girl with a note asking for help, a unmistakably drug-addled Seimetz finding the trio snooping) are effectively creepy, and Seimetz’s true believer is wholly convincing, by far the most frightening aspect of the film. But West never goes beneath the surface of how cults ensnare people, and his restaging of the actual Massacre (complete with similar methods and a pre-flight shootout that’ll seem awfully familiar to those who know the Jonestown case well) feels exploitative, with real life tragedy serving as a way to up the shock factor. Most great directors make bad films at some points in their careers; it’s just unfortunate that The Sacrament is such an ugly one.

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