Saturday, August 30, 2014

THE SACRAMENT (2014)

THE SACRAMENT (2014)
Label: Magnet Relesing
Region Code: A
Rating: R
Duration: 99 Minutes
Audio: English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 with Optional English, Spanish Subtitles 
Video: 1080p Widescreen (1.78:1) 
Director: Ti West 
Cast: AJ Bowen, Joe Swanberg, Kentucky Audley, Amy Seimetz, Gene Jones

Director Ti West has made quite a name for himself since coming onto the indie--horror scene with The Roost (2005) and the one-two punch of The House of the Devil (2009) and The Inn Keepers (2009). I'm a fan of his style and the meticulously composed shots with a deliberate build-up. I even love the maligned Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever (2009) which West disowned when producers re cut the film with additional footage, even with it's problems it's a fun, gooey comedy with a lot of icky moments. 

Afterward Ti West kept busy with contributions to the anthology films V/H/S (2012) and The ABCs of Death (2012) both of which I strongly disliked, particularly the V/H/S entry which I felt was the worst of the bunch. Coming into The Sacrament (2014) I didn't have a lot of expectations one way or the other. I try not to get too excited or down on a film prior to watching it, even if I feel the filmmakers previous few outings were duds. The proof is always in the pudding. 

The Sacrament is a modern retelling of the final days of the Jonestown cult and the mass suicide that occurred there in 1978. Framed as a documentary shot by two VICE Media correspondents Sam and Jake (AJ Bowed, Joe Swanberg) who learn through photographer friend  Peter (Kentucky Audler) of a hippie-styled commune located outside of the United States. The photographers formerly drug-addicted sister Caroline (Amy Siemetz) now resides in what sounds like a Utopian paradise in the jungle and she wants him to come visit. 

The brother is concerned for the sisters safety and the VICE guys see it as a great story opportunity and set off to the undisclosed location. They arrive at the rural location known as Eden's Parish, a self-sustaining commune. After a threatening encounter with armed gunmen the trio meet-up with Caroline and things start to smooth out. The place seems pretty alright and the two hundred or so followers seem well adjusted and happy to be there, most having escaped lives of poverty and drug addiction in the U.S.. They seem quite happy to be there and follow a man that everyone calls Father (Gene Jones).

The film plays out documentary style with time stamps and location titles as the crew document the cult and interview a few of the followers of the beloved Father. Perhaps the strongest element of the film is that we get a peek inside the cult and a taste of the mentality as the followers reveal why they chose to drop out of society and what drew them to Father. 


The crew are granted permission to interview Father that night at an assembly and we see the overwhelming love and support  for him from the many followers. Gene Jones is pretty superb as the charismatic cult leader. A slow drawn out speaker he oozes charm and love, which makes it hard to interview him, he's one of those guys that can turn your question around on you twice and never once actually reveal anything. 

After the assembly things start to turn a bit dark for it seems the newcomers have created a movement of descent among his followers and Father is none too pleased. Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of the events and Jonestown know the direction the film turns afterward. The story held absolutely no surprises  for me which is a disappointment - this is pretty much a straight-up fictionalized account of the Jonestown cult's final days and doesn't stray from it.

That's not to say that the performances are not effective - the dynamic of the cult followers and the charismatic leader are very good, creepily so. The VICE crew keep us rooted in the story as they are a stand-in for the viewer playing both skeptic and cautious believer. To their credit they didn't make any decisions that made me yell at the screen in anger which is a plus, all too often these found footage type films are filled with dim witted decisions. The most harrowing scene for me was that of Peter and his demented sister at the end of the film, he is powerless to stop what's transpiring around him, it's a very affecting scene. Throughout the film you  can tell she's just a bit off - she's sort of the second in command at the parish - and as the utopia unravels so does she with tragic consequences. 

The camerawork is pretty decent and does feel like an authentic documentary, as is often the case the camera catches a bit too much to be based in reality but the filmmakers are making a film here and Ti West is someone with a deliberate style of cinematography and I can imagine it might have been hard to relinquish control of the camera for this as cinema verite seem at odds with West's deliberate composition, to that end does not feel like a Ti West film but the writing certainly does.  

I enjoyed it but I didn't love it just for the fact that I knew what would happen because it'd so adherent to the source material meant that there were very few surprises. I appreciated the performances and there's some decent tension being built-up but this has zero re watch factor for me. I thought Timo Tjahjanto and Gareth Edward's "Safe Haven" segment from V/H/S/2 was a more interesting and original take on cult story. Not awful but definitely my least favorite of Ti West's feature films. 

The disc from Magnet Releasing looks and sounds great - shot on the Canon C300 digital camera is looks like a a nive HD documentary with a decent surround mix. There's a director's commentary a four featurettes documenting the making-of the film. 

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