Ti West’s 2013 film The Sacrament is an unsettling and distressing experience. It is presented in the found footage style, but its “documentary” presentation serves to excuse and explain the often theatrical mounting of the material.
The Sacrament is in part a retelling of the events at Jonestown in 1978, where cult leader Jim Jones encouraged the suicide of over 900 people. West places things on a smaller scale, which has the effect of rendering the fictional events more intimate while casting the historical record as all the more horrendous.
Photographer Patrick (Kentucker Adley) receives a letter from his recovering addict sister Caroline (Amy Seimetz). She has been living in Eden Parish, a remote commune. She wants her brother to visit. He takes along reporter Sam (AJ Bowen) and cameraman Jake (Joe Swanberg), who work for Vice.
The group visits the commune and finds several people happy with their isolation. There is no technology, apart from loudspeakers and the bare essentials. The leader of the collective is known only as Father (Gene Jones) and he agrees to an interview. Things take a turn when a woman (Kate Lyn Sheil) wants the “outsiders” to take her daughter (Talia Dobbins) to safety.
The Sacrament does an excellent job laying the groundwork for its tale of revulsion. The men from Vice initially find much to admire about Eden Parish. They are lured into a peaceful haze. Questions about armed guards are brushed aside by Father’s misdirection and the people seem happy enough.
But horrors lurk beneath. West’s understanding of the insidiousness of actual evil stitches itself into the skin. Words drive the terror; out-of-context scripture references and rantings about poverty, racism, imperialism, and the like create a delusion of benevolence under which despicable ideas foment.
Father, played with rising intensity by Jones, builds his cult from concepts of distrust. The media is always lying. The outside world is violent. Nobody can be trusted. Only the Father offers truth and solutions. He builds a metaphorical wall to keep the outside out. One doesn’t require a deep understanding of the 2016 election to spot the echoes of such rhetoric.
The followers are willing to do anything for the Father, for the promises he makes. He rattles off bible verses and they take to it, spotting all the evidence they require. Some stick to conscience over groupthink and that’s when West makes things dangerous. Father makes good on his issues with “outsiders.” Bullets fly, poison is consumed, a fire burns.
West and cinematographer Eric Robbins take a realistic view and that helps keep The Sacrament grounded. There are no outlandish death scenes and no jump scares. The horror comes from the intense waiting, from the petrifying screams and gasps and retches as the Eden Parish followers drink it down.
Some might argue that The Sacrament lacks insight or that it focuses on the mass suicide more than unearthing any causal philosophy, but the elemental seems to be the point. There is no logic in the irrationality of the Father. There is nothing to unpack in his grandiloquence and faux-compassion. The songs, empty paeans to a god the faithful long to join, ring through the jungle.
It’s hard to understand such things. Even West seems to shy away from how dreadful it really was in Jonestown. An overhead shot of Eden Parish shows a cluster of bodies, a far cry from the dead that actually lay in the fields of Guyana. And the real shock is deeper within, enduring in the minds of those seeking heaven but finding only hell in the lethal words of a madman.