Ti West, the low-fi horror maven and cornerstone of the mumblegore (mumblecore gone bloody) genre, doesn’t so much reimagine the 1978 Jonestown Massacre in Guyana as he repositions it in the now. The details of an American cult relocated to foreign soil to avoid scrutiny and the tentacles of the law is uncanny in its historical abidance and a de facto spoiler to boot.
West, who made a name for himself with The Innnkeepers and V/H/S, goes the faux-documentary route, employing a jittery handheld lens in possession of one of the imperiled characters—a la The Blair Witch Project—as the unspeakable unfolds. The hook is that the three Americans who wind up in the remote jungles of South America run an underground web broadcast called VICE (the set looks like something garishly cheesy out of Videodrome) and practice “immersion journalism,” so when the sister of one of the trio goes missing after joining up with a sobriety group, the reclamation quest becomes natural fodder for a story. Patrick (Kentucker Audley), the generic hipster looking for his sis, ultimately doesn’t factor in so much and the film’s focus shifts to the hard-pressing Sam (AJ Bowen) and his cameraman, Jake (prolific indie stalwart du jour, Joe Swanberg), who remains largely out of view, toting the chalice of glimmer.
Once inside the Eden Parish compound, following some tense gun waving and cloak-and-dagger shenanigans to get there, there’s little mystery as to the whereabouts of Patrick’s sister, Caroline (Amy Seimetz); she’s ascended to a senior post and the three outsiders are suddenly granted free range access to converse with the rainbow-colored flock of former derelicts and addicts who “have nothing to hide.” Everything appears harmonious and tranquil, but as evening draws near, some unsettling developments give the journos pause for concern.
Things get kicked up a notch when the commune’s Jim Jones-like leader, Father (an actor ironically named Gene Jones), finally appears and grants Sam an interview in an “open,” talk-show like setting before the congregation. Jones, who played the fortunate gas attendant in No Country for Old Men, getting that lucky coin toss that spares his life, is captivating. His jowly resolve, deepened by a pair of dark glasses, sells with conviction and a touch of Southern Baptist twang. He’s an old lion trying to hold onto his pride and the rock of West’s vision that never quite rises to its ambition.
For starters, the found footage format becomes cumbersome and feels disingenuous as cameras are diligently placed by those handling them even during dump-and-run moments. Then there’s the strange motivational drive of Caroline that doesn’t feel sincere or thought out. Seimetz, who was so good in Upsteam Color and You’re Next unfortunately gets wasted here as a plot point hook to propel intrigue. And given all that, there’s still an edge to The Sacrament that stays honed and sharp right up to the Final Judgment conclusion.
The sheer audacity of such a heinous mass act orchestrated under the command of one man consumed headlines back in the ’70s. What kept it newsworthy in the aftermath were the individual stories of the people and their personal struggles and weaknesses that delivered them to Jonestown. In his rendering, West sporadically acknowledges these stories, but then just lets it all slip away in the artifice of video cameras and cellphones. A different spin, something to surprise—think the original The Wicker Man or Kill List—might have made The Sacrament more than just an old, unhappy bowl of Kool-Aid.
Tom Meek is a writer living in Cambridge, MA. His reviews, essays, short stories and articles have appeared in The Boston Phoenix, Paste Magazine, The Rumpus, Thieves Jargon, Charleston City Paper and SLAB literary journal. Tom is also a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics and rides his bike everywhere. You can follow him on Twitter.
Director: Ti West
Writer: Ti West
Starring: Kentucker Audley, Joe Swanberh, Gene Jones, AJ Bowen, Amy Seimetz
Release Date: June 2, 2014