With The Sacrament, director Ti West has bitten off more of a premise than his classically modest barebones approach to horror movies can presently chew. The film opens with text describing the working practices of VICE Media, which specializes in “immersion journalism.” VICE reporter Sam (AJ Bowen) explains to us that colleague Patrick (Kentucker Audley) has received a letter from his long-lost addict sister, Caroline (Amy Seimetz), stating that she’s living in a new recovery group somewhere in a suspiciously undisclosed country. Patrick is invited to join her, and Sam, understandably suspecting a potential breaking story about a religious cult, tags along with a cameraman, Jake (Joe Swanberg), in tow to shoot footage for a potential feature.
What the VICE crew initially finds, after a long helicopter ride and a prolonged navigation through a variety of forbiddingly armed wilderness checkpoints, is an encampment called Eden Parish, a cult that’s obviously informed by real groups such as the Peoples Temple Agriculture Project (better known as Jonestown) and the more recent Church of Wells. And, for a while, it appears that West is really on to something, as The Sacrament initially suggests that he’s willing to extend an unusual amount of empathy to a group that embraces sustainable farming, inexpensive medical treatment, and pretty damn good bluegrass music.
West’s initially quite cognizant of the reason that cults appear to be gaining stature in our pop-cultural awareness lately, particularly in films. The classic religious cult, as we secondhandedly understand it, appears to come unnervingly close to proposing a reasonable and legitimate escape from the pressures of a present American reality informed by an openly corrupt and indifferent government. According to the traditional rules of cult lore, you must forfeit your freedom, but you paradoxically gain in exchange for that freedom a new sense of individuality, as you’ve winnowed your society down to a palpably immediate few. Therefore, your contribution to your community appears to make an actual difference. In other words, many cults claim to offer an attainable and unsullied form of the original American dream.
Some of the details we’re provided of Eden Parish are shrewdly effective. This group lacks the overtly off-putting Bible Belt fanaticism of hardcore sects that are rooted in racist/sexist notions of the Old Testament. The members of Eden Parish are racially and generationally mixed, which briefly allows you to entertain the notion that West’s leading up to something surprising, perhaps a radical conversion parable in which the VICE crew is tempted to shed their prior personalities and illusory freedoms for something ideologically purer and less toxic. But West eventually remembers that he’s a genre director, and there’s a pivotal, and obligatory, tonal shift between the second and third acts that he isn’t able to convincingly bring off.
The second half of The Sacrament is the simultaneously most powerful yet most fouled up work of West’s career. The leader of Eden Parish, called the Father (Gene Jones), eventually arrives to be interviewed by Sam, and he’s a vivid and terrifying creation, a snake-oil salesman who specializes in the art of advertising his own brand of fascism as a tonic for larger corporate corruption (his logic appears to be that it’s better to be robbed by one man you know than a hundred you don’t). And Jones, who appears to be channeling the very shallowly submerged aggression inherent in many of Stacey Keach’s performances, is terrific, but he and West tip the film’s hand too soon.
There’s obviously something wrong with Eden Parish. Caroline may still be using drugs as well as sleeping with Father, and many of the Parish’s followers insist to Sam that they’re being held against their will, but West never indicates if Father believes in his actions or is simply an all-out charlatan. (West doesn’t appear to care, or to be able to discern the potential emotional difference between the two alternatives.) We’re also never given much evidence of the Parish’s pull over people or of the emotional damage that leads people to embrace it. There’s a catastrophic third-act tragedy, but it doesn’t make a whiff of sense, as it involves the Father’s panicked reaction to events he personally put in motion. After the film is over, you have no real idea why the VICE crew would have ever been allowed on the Parish grounds to begin with.
This irresolution will be inevitably embraced by a certain part of the audience as a testament to West’s admirable willingness to allow for ambiguity and mystery, but there’s ambiguity and there’s a simple unwillingness to do your character homework. The images of death that abound in the final act of The Sacrament are quite strong, primarily for their exploitive resemblance to real events, but West doesn’t earn them because he isn’t willing to dive into the political and emotional psychology that wrought this carnage. West appears to be interested in cults mainly for their cache and for how they lend themselves to a big-movie finale, and so he cloaks his disinterest in nuance under the trope of the abrupt horror ending. This bait and switch works in the heat of the moment, but it’s a cheat, and it reduces the stature of characters that initially had the promise to reflect our contemporary frustrations right back in our faces. Based on the evidence offered here, West would appear to believe that all cultists come to their way of life by an inherent lunacy or stupidity and nothing more. And that condescension imbues this film with a bitter aftertaste that’s not only hollow, but insulting.
Film Comment Selects runs from February 17—27.