- Magnet Releasing
(The Sacrament opens on Friday, June 27, at The Grand Illusion Cinema.)
After taking on Satan worshippers (The House of the Devil) and cranky ghosts (The Innkeepers), writer-director Ti West was bound to get around to cults, and that's the supernatural-free phenomenon around which The Sacrament revolves.
The story begins when Patrick (Kentucker Audley), a New York photographer, receives a letter informing him that his sister, Caroline (Amy Seimetz, Audley's partner), a former drug addict, has just moved from a sober-living community in Mississippi to an undisclosed foreign location. She makes arrangements so that he can join her to check it out.
Patrick's associates at Vice sense a story, so Sam (You're Next's A.J. Bowen), a reporter, and Jake (director Joe Swanberg, who also appeared in West's V/H/S entry), a videographer, fly down with him by private helicopter. They plan to return home the next day. Clearly, things won't work out quite that neatly.
Like Bobcat Goldthwait's Willow Creek, The Sacrament makes use of found footage, but the concept proves more convincing in the Goldthwait effort in which a California couple travels into the woods to search for Bigfoot. In this one, the proceedings play like a Vice Guide documentary with on-screen text to identify people and chapters, but it would've worked just as well without the conceit.
While on camera, Sam proceeds to interview several inhabitants of Eden Parish. They're black and white, young and old, and everybody seems pretty happy. At the outset, the only creepy thing is that they call their leader (No Country for Old Men's Gene Jones) "Father" and he calls them "Children," but when Sam gets him to agree to a sit-down interview, Father doesn't say anything especially disturbing. It's hard to fault a man opposed to "poverty, greed, and racism."
Naturally, there's a turning point, and that isn't a complaint. I wasn't expecting a pleasant expedition, but at the halfway mark, the Vice crew receives a sign that something is rotten in this agrarian utopia (West shot the film in Georgia, though the terrain could pass for Guyana, which seems more than a little intentional).
And then it all goes to shit. Unfortunately, that applies to the film, too, because what happens next too closely resembles the final days of the Branch Davidians, Heaven's Gate, and other 20th-century cults that went out in a blaze of ignominy.
Of the most recent feature films about cults, I'd rate The Sacrament below Martha Marcy May Marlene and The Sound of My Voice and above Happiness Runs—though you can't beat Rutger Hauer as a cult leader—but I can't say I've seen many truly great films on the topic, mainly because cult-truth is often stranger than cult-fiction, which is why I tend to prefer documentaries like Jonestown: The Life and Death of People's Temple and The Source Family.
So, it's a misfire—an interesting one, but a misfire, nonetheless. Even Amy Seimetz, who also works as a director, gives an uncharacteristically off-key performance. Things get off to a good start, but then the material swallows her whole. You'd be better off watching last year's Upstream Color to see what she can do given a more layered character and a less literal-minded script.