There are several things that make horror writer/director/editor Ti West stand out amongst his peers. One is that he has a strong grasp on how horror works and uses appropriate techniques for his films. He also excels at crafting characters. His lead characters tend to be very likeable and interesting, allowing the viewer to connect with them and not immediately find them annoying and wanting them to die. As a filmmaker, he is also masterful in handling pacing and suspense. One phrase you would hear quite often in regard to his films is “slow burn.” The first halves of his films usually go on with not much happening, and a lot of times this is what people would complain about. However, what Ti West does is establish character and a sense of normality and routineness, all while building up suspense to an explosive climax. It’s certainly not for everybody, especially those who want a non-stop adrenaline rush, but for those who can appreciate unabashed old school horror filmmaking, Ti West is a name to keep in mind. This brings us to his latest feature, The Sacrament.
The film follows three men. They are Sam (A.J. Bowen), Jake (Joe Swanberg) and Patrick (Kentucker Audley). Patrick is travelling out of the country to a commune called Eden Parish. He is going to meet his sister, Caroline (Amy Seimetz), who has been living in the commune after leaving her drug rehabilitation program. So, they decide to go together and film their exploration of the commune. They meet Caroline who seems to be happy and healthy in the commune, and they find that it has a large community led by a man called Father (Gene Jones). They go on documenting and interviewing the inhabitants and figure that the commune is not that bad after all. Or is it?
Basically the film is “Jonestown the Movie.” It’s based on the events of Jonestown in the same way Citizen Kane is a biopic of William Randolph Hearst, details are changed here and there, but the inspiration that the film takes is heavy. Granted if you knew anything about Jonestown (or if you’ve seen any number of cult-related horror flicks), then you will see where the film is going, and if you are hoping the film to go into some crazy, out of nowhere twist, then you might be disappointed. Unlike some of Ti West’s other films, this one does not have any supernatural element. It is a straight up, stripped-down exploration of a cult’s culture and how blind faith can affect people.
Ti West’s style is in full force with this film. Like his other films, it starts off introducing the characters and locations and just letting it loose and breath for the first half of the film. So, if you’re not a fan of this style, then you might as well skip this one. Even though Patrick is the one that starts this whole thing, he ultimately gets lost in the shuffle; the film mostly focuses on Sam. It’s his journey, and his dilemma, which he deals with alongside Jake. All the characters are well-defined and you get invested in the situation, so when the suspense builds up, you really hope certain characters make it out OK. Ti West’s dialogue is great, and feels very realistic. The little moments and details that he puts in the film really add a lot.
The acting is superb. The three leads are good and very believable. However, it’s with the cult members where the acting really stands out. Gene Jones, who you might recognize as the gas station guy from No Country for Old Men, is brilliant as the confident and manipulative cult leader. He plays the role with great subtly and never goes over-the-top. Amy Seimetz impresses as Caroline; she effectively portrays her character with humanity that sells the actions that she takes. The various members of the commune are performed wonderfully. Ti West makes the right decision when it came to humanizing the cult members and not portraying them as evil from the get go. He allows us to understand why these people join the commune and having it relate to us. It’s a smart move, and it makes the ending payoff that much more.
The film does have one major flaw. The film is shot with a found footage/faux documentary style, and often changes between the two. I feel that this was a poor decision. I have nothing against the format, but I think it does not work here. There is really no reason whatsoever for the characters to be filming the events as they occur throughout the film. It ends up being a disservice to the otherwise great screenplay, since the various tropes and clichés of the found footage genre are shoehorned into the film to give characters unclear reasons as to why they are filming everything. Plus, as I mentioned before, the film switches between found footage to edited, multi-camera filmed faux documentary. It’s very inconsistent and makes the film feel a bit uneven. Is the film we’re watching the documentary that the characters are making? The titles in the beginning and end would imply that, however, there are points where different characters have cameras and there’s no way that the main characters would have had access to it. It’s Ti West’s first film in this style, and though it’s not as bad as George Romero’s first (and only) attempt with Diary of the Dead, but the film is still plagued by many of the idiotic issues that constantly appear in these types of film. It’s also disappointing in the sense that Ti West has a keen eye for visuals, and that element is lacking since it’s all shaky and handheld.
The Sacrament is a film that suffers from its poor choice in film style, but it makes up for it by its execution in every other aspect. The film is full of great performances and great dialogue. The portrayal of the cult is hauntingly realistic and Ti West’s direction keeps you on edge until the climax. For those who are not aware of Jonestown and haven’t seen many cult-related films, then you might get more out of this than those like I who have seen things similar and are aware of the history behind the inspiration of the film. I will stand by that I do think this is an ultimately effective and chilling thriller that is good, but could have easily been great. It’s certainly worth a watch if you’re in the mood for a horror film that is more grounded that most.
Side Note: If you’re interested in checking out Ti West’s other films (he’s only done five others, one of which he’s disowned), I highly recommend his previous two films The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers. His first two films are The Roost and Trigger Man, both are pretty good, but I’d only recommend them if you really get into his other work. He also directed Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever, which he disowned due to the extensive re-editing and re-shooting by producers, so I wouldn’t say that’s required viewing.