Ti West has always been a director whose potential I admired even when I was left cold by his finished films. House of the Devil was an commendable stab at replicating the atmosphere of ’80s VHS horror. The Innkeepers contained some rather Kubrickian moments and a killer chemistry shared between Pat Healy and Sara Paxton. But in the end, the payoffs never really justified the protracted, slow-burn set-ups; his endings becoming the epitome of anti-climactic.
The Sacrament is the film where West finally “gets it right”. While still retaining the methodical pacing of his previous work, the writer/director crafts an emotionally satisfying climax that is worthy of his meticulously detailed character and world creation. It’s a throwback while still feeling modern; a mockumentary that keeps his signature style of story-telling completely intact. Opening at the offices of Vice Magazine (yes, the very same hyped-up, “hipster 60 Minutes” program from HBO), Sam (AJ Bowen) explains how his good friend, Patrick (Kentucker Audley), has a sister who’s disappeared after falling in with her latest sobriety support group. The sect has transplanted itself to an unnamed country, so Sam and cameraman Jake (Joe Swanberg) decide to tag along when Patrick goes to visit, hoping the sibling’s story provides enough fodder for their unique style of “immersion journalism”.
It’s clear from the moment the trio arrive that something isn’t right with this modern Jonestown. Large men with machine guns meet them at the gates, and Patrick’s sister (Amy Seimetz), begins to extoll the virtues of the the founder known only as “Father” (Gene Jones). But once they begin to interview some of the commune’s members, Sam and Jake find a diverse group of believers who have sold off all of their worldly possessions in an attempt to find peace. Neither of the reporters fully get the blind devotion but, as Sam puts it, “if they’re truly happy, who am I to judge?”
It isn’t until they are granted a sit-down with the enigmatic master that a creeping dread begins to fill the two journalists. “Father” may have a down home charm about himself, preaching about escaping a world of “racism” and “greed”, but the way he presents his case against “outsiders” almost feels like a thinly veiled promise of punishment for disbelief. And once he begins to not-so-vaguely threaten Sam’s wife and unborn child, it’s clear that something isn’t right in the Kool-Aid.
While his world-building and attention to detail are certainly strong, it’s arguable that West’s greatest strength as a filmmaker has always been his ability with casting actors who are perfect for their roles. Both Bowen and Swanberg bring an affable charm (Bowen switching between an “on” and “off-camera” personality is especially impressive), and Seimetz is very strong as the freshly teetotal flower child. But its Jones who steals The Sacrament entirely, bringing much needed gravitas to his role as the cult leader. Without his ability to magnetize every scene in which he appears, the film would collapse like a house of cards.
For viewers of a “certain age” (namely mid-thirty to forty-somethings and beyond), the story’s beats are going to be relatively easy to predict. West is clearly emulating the Jonestown Suicide Pact here, and that history is engrained in the consciousness of certain generations of viewers. Still, as the Man once said: “it isn’t the destination, but the journey that matters”. The compound feels complete, right down to the “killer band” that plays spirituals at a party thrown in the “guests’ honor”. West yet again finds the devil in the details, building a quiet sense of unease with each seemingly happy interview the members of the commune share and the phlegmatic way “Father” delivers the utilitarian announcements over the loudspeaker. And while some are bound to reject the movie for its story beats, they’d be missing a meticulous bit of world-building.
When the climax arrives, it’s a wrenching bit of horror that packs both an emotional and visceral punch. By forcing us to spend so much time amongst these “true believers”, it causes their final moments to become much more emotionally affecting, and both Bowen and Swanberg’s responses are realistically conveyed moments of terror. West finally delivers an end that warrants the casual pacing; a mind-blowingly powerful release of the tension built. As a viewer who was ready to give up on waiting for the director to finally stick the landing, I’m happy to report that The Sacrament ensures I’ll be tuning in for whatever West does next.