Starring: Joe Swanberg, AJ Bowen, Kentucker Audley, Gene Jones, Amy Seimetz
Rated R for Disturbing Violent Content including Bloody Images, Language and Brief Drug Use
By the third act of "The Sacrament," the most recent film from Ti West, I began to feel uneasy. Under most circumstances, that would be praise-worthy for a horror movie. Not here. I felt uneasy because it uses a real life tragedy as a setting for a horror movie, and by sticking so close to it while using many familiar horror clichés, it renders the film exploitative.
Sam (Bowen), Jake (Swanberg) and Patrick (Audley) are journalists working for a media company called VICE, which reports the news by having the reporters immerse themselves in the story and report from within. Patrick has just received a mysterious letter from his sister, Caroline (Seimetz), who after a trip to rehab for drug addiction, has found a new life on a commune and invited him to visit. Patrick, Sam and Jake go, and it seems to be as happy and peaceful as it sounds. It is presided over a man everyone calls Father (Jones), who built the commune from the ground up. But when they receive a letter from a little girl asking for help, they realize that things aren't what they seem.
"The Sacrament" is little more than a modern-day retelling of the final days of the People's Temple. In fact, the final half hour or so is almost lifted off the pages of history. That's not so much a problem in and of itself; a first person report on a cult could have made for riveting, if disturbing, viewing. But West sticks so close to the facts while calling it something else that it feels disrespectful. He should have either fictionalized it more, or made a docudrama.
What really made me squirm is the fact that West chooses to present this as a horror movie. In a movie about a cult that ends in mass suicide, do we really need familiar clichés like the hero hiding under the bed from the killer, the suspenseful music, finding the missing friend, and so on? I don't think so.
And yet Ti West knows what he's doing. At age 35, he shows more skill than many other more famous horror directors (let's face it, the only horror filmmaker these days who is as reliable for a good scarefest is James Wan, who made "Saw" and "The Conjuring," among others). The film is well-acted (both Gene Jones as the stand-in for Jim Jones and Amy Seimetz as the sunny Caroline are worth mentioning). It is also consistently suspenseful and intense, particularly during the build-up.
But the film's final act really hurts the film. The film is pigeonholed into a genre in which it most definitely does not fit, and West, whose previous films "The Innkeepers" and "The House of the Devil" were known for their restraint, overdoes the violence. For example, we see a mother slitting her daughter's throat to avoid her being forced to take the poison, which is insulting and ridiculous rather than tragic, and we see Caroline light herself on fire after she graphically poisons her brother (the film doesn't cut away from either; West forces us to watch both, treading quite close to sadism).
I give West credit for the attempt, but ultimately he has only himself to blame. There's no reason this couldn't have worked with a more sensitive touch.