The Sacrament review

Indie horror auteur Ti West turns to cult religious mania in The Sacrament.

The Sacrament is the latest offering from filmmaker Ti West, who has garnered a loyal following on the independent horror scene with his films The Roost, House of the Devil and The Innkeepers. West is known for his “slow-burning” style of horror, using a deceptively somber pace and long takes to build to moments of genuine fright, particularly on his last two pictures. With his latest, West takes things in a different direction, dispensing with the supernatural overtones and more leisurely build-up of his recent output in favor of something more immediate.

The movie is shot in found-footage style, which West first experimented with on his V/H/S segment, “Second Honeymoon,” although it’s much more cinematic and fluid here than in other examples of the genre. The story follows two journalists who work for Vice magazine — reporter Sam (AJ Bowen) and cameraman Jake (Joe Swanberg) — as they join a friend, photographer Patrick (Kentucker Audley), on a trip to an unidentified, isolated location in search of Patrick’s sister Caroline (Amy Seimetz), who left drug rehab to join a commune known as Eden Parish.

Something seems off right from the start, as the three men are at first blocked from entering the commune by threatening-looking guards with machine guns. But Caroline comes out to rescue them and bring them inside, while telling them how happy and healthy she has been since coming to Eden Parish. The commune is run by a man known as Father (Gene Jones), who has a strange, messianic command over his followers. As Sam and Jake set out to interview first some of the commune members and then Father himself, they soon discover that the seemingly placid and bucolic surface of the place hides something much darker.

If all this sounds familiar, that’s probably because it is: this is a fictionalized re-telling of the Jonestown Massacre, the horrifying 1978 incident in which more than 900 followers of religious leader Jim Jones committed suicide at their compound in Guyana. And therein lies the problem: while The Sacrament has a foreboding atmosphere from the start and its third act is grueling to watch, the movie has absolutely nothing to say or add to its fictional recreation of an event that has been exhaustively documented and analyzed elsewhere.

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Almost as soon as our three heroes get to Eden Parish, you know exactly where this is going: not only have there been movies and books based directly on Jonestown, but cults of this sort have shown up in plenty of other films. As I watched the story follows its predictable course and spiral toward its inevitable ending (which I’m not really spoiling if you know anything about Jonestown), I kept hoping that the usually crafty West would add something — a new twist, a reveal that Father is actually Satan, anything — that would alleviate the boredom that began to set in.

But my hopes were dashed. While West does wring some shock out of the movie’s final scenes and generate mild suspense over whether any of our three protagonists will make it out alive, none of that can take away the sense of frustration I had while watching the movie go through the motions. House of the Devil and The Innkeepers were very specific and small stories that didn’t address any larger issues. By taking on cults with The Sacrament, West is almost obliged to find some new meaning in the commune’s horrific actions — except he never does.

Bowen, Swanberg and especially Seimetz all deliver decent work here despite being handed rather thin characters to flesh out. The star performance comes from Jones, whose Father is a mix of Southern preacher and slick salesman — even as he makes what sound like perfectly reasonable arguments you can’t help but feel your skin crawl. Jones fully inhabits the character with a genuinely unsettling portrayal, although like everything else about The Sacrament you kind of have Father’s number the minute he shows up.

The Sacrament is available on VOD now and out in theaters Friday, June 6.

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2.5 out of 5