Cults are terrifying. The idea that these people think they know something you don’t, that they’ve discovered one of the universe’s secrets, and you just don’t see it, is unnerving. Or that they’re being manipulated, used, corralled for a nefarious purpose, a hive minded wrecking ball of social justice. Their various purposes, innumerable sources of power or influence, from religion to sexual to political, makes them all the more intriguing, because they’re un-categorical.
With THE SACRAMENT, writer-director-producer Ti West (THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL, THE INNKEEPERS) seeks to showcase a snapshot of a religious cult from a journalistic perspective, and the dark, insidious intentions that creep just underneath the surface. As such, THE SACRAMENT is shot “documentary-style,” a twist on the found footage subgenre, and a darn clever excuse to have the conceit actually make sense.
Patrick (AIN’T THEM BODIES SAINTS’ Kentucker Audley) is a freelance photographer for Vice, a news organization that prides itself on immersionism. When Patrick learns that his sister Caroline (the fantastic Amy Seimetz from UPSTREAM COLOR and THE KILLING) has left the country with a cult, he becomes worried, while Sam (THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL and YOU’RE NEXT’s A.J. Bowen) and Jake (Joe Swanberg, director of DRINKING BUDDIES) know a compelling story when they see one.
Caroline joined the cult to become sober, and judging from what she says in a cryptic letter to Patrick, it appears to be working. Seemingly because she misses Patrick (or wants to “save” him), Caroline invites Patrick to Eden Parish, giving him an address to fly to, where he will be helicoptered into the rural camp, and ushered into Eden Parish. Sam, Jake and their video cameras, come along for the ride.
From the start, something feels off. Two armed guards almost don’t let Jake and Sam come with Patrick, since they weren’t invited or part of the bargain, but Patrick manages to get them through. It’s one of those moments where you know the characters will wish they had been stopped. They take a two kilometer road into Eden Parish, and meet up with Caroline, who seems positively radiant. They’ve built this community with their bare hands; they’ve achieved heaven on Earth, you know the shtick. Caroline isn’t the only one sipping on the Kool-Aid, as everyone (of all different ages) Jake and Sam interview says Eden Parish is the best place that they’ve ever lived, extolling the wisdom and virtue of “Father,” the leader of this rural “utopia.” While we get a good sense of the community and its citizens, the whole “something is rotten…” with this picture is fairly routine.
The citizens of Eden Parish sold their worldly possessions to make this community, to start over, to fashion a new beginning, seeking to eradicate poverty, greed and racism. Jake, Sam and Patrick can’t help but be impressed by the community, their united front, and the happiness that appears to radiate from each and every one of its citizens. While Ti West and company serve to make the idea of this cult slightly alluring (no more cell phones! no government!), we never for a second believe it’s not about to become the most evil place on Earth.
We know it’s a façade, and Sam and Jake’s optimism doesn’t last, especially after Sam gets to interview the Father (a tremendously disturbing Gene Jones, from NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN) in front of the entire Parish, on the eve of a community wide celebration marking their arrival.
While he’s not overtly threatening, there’s something in how the Father answers (or doesn’t) Sam’s questions, and what he seems to know about the visitors that gets to you, and has Sam justifiably wigged out.
Then, it all goes to shit.
And spectacularly so, as Ti West goes there. The insanity of the final act is thrilling, eerie and nuts. The entire film is tense, as we don’t know when Sam and company are going to stumble upon the truth, but it’s worth the wait when it finally does.
While THE EAST had its problems, it somehow made some facets of a cult intriguing (and even appealing), in spite of yourself. MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE is far more personal, psychological and unnerving. THE SACRAMENT keeps an aura of mystery over the cult, which is effective in building the aforementioned tension, but it also undermines our ability to grapple onto any deeper meaning. We know the cult is bad news, or is going to be, and the only surprises become who will survive, how people will die, and how characters will survive, like any other horror movie. Who is the Father? How did he wrangle this community together? How did he keep them imprisoned? What was Father’s end game? Why did the Father let any outsiders in if the community was so tenuous? An effective film makes us ask these questions and want to know more, though I think some of these lingering questions served to fracture Ti West’s quest to create a deeper, more mindful film. That said, THE SACRAMENT poses a cult without any answers, or without even a clear purpose, that everyone and everything is so fragile, a notion that makes it all the more scary to ponder, especially when paired with a deeply disquieting and creative climactic finale.
THE SACRAMENT arrives on iTunes and On Demand May 1st, 2014, and is coming to theaters June 6th, 2014.