A sacrament, in Christian terms, is defined as a religious ceremony or act that is regarded as an outward and visible sign of inward and spiritual divine grace. Director Ti West takes this definition to its most extreme, in his latest film, The Sacrament.
As shown on Day 3 of AFI Fest, West (The Innkeepers) was on hand to introduce his arresting film, playing in the Midnight series of screenings, which definitely aided in providing a sort of charged energy amongst the audience while watching. That electricity of the night might have further helped how the film played, which operates on a more slow-burning pace, taking great patience until finally arriving to its intended payoffs of horror.
Staged as a documentary, a VICE video diary to be exact, we follow journalist Patrick (Kentucker Audley) as he sets out to reconnect with his estranged and once drug-addicted sister Caroline (Amy Seimitz), now living on a private-living compound in an African country. And of course, working as a videographer for VICE (of internet and blogosphere notoriety), an alternative news outlet documenting nonstandard cultural practices events, Patrick brings with him a video team comprised of reporter Sam (AJ Bowen) and videographer Jake (Joe Swanberg) to document the experience. Landing soon enough, by way of helicopter, the crew is jarringly met by armed guards, yielding automatic gunfire.
The evil that takes form in this film is one that stems from the darkest of motivations from the human condition.
The initial skepticism and hint of fear that the team feels then carries through the rest of their stay, as they are eventually, though with great hesitance, allowed to enter the private community and document the experience. Reconnecting with Caroline, with a now eerily positive energy and outlook on life, she informs Patrick and the crew of the community’s efforts to attempt to remove themselves from the hypocrisies and evils of modern day living, leading the VICE team to grow even more suspicious, and wonder who is leading their new-age community. The answer, they find, is “Father” (Gene Jones), the leader of the compound, who the crew are intrigued to interview. Yet upon their meeting with Father, and with soft spoken voices of the community, they find that things are very much not as they seem, and that their outsider presence has just disrupted their way of living. From here, about halfway through the film’s run time, the real payoffs start coming, and the horrors of cult mentality are fully materialized.
As West has stated, he wanted to make a film without “supernatural” elements or horrors, as his previous films have employed. And so, the evil that takes form in this film is one that stems from the darkest of motivations from the human condition. Taking inspiration from the real-life Jonestown Massacre of 1978, a horrific cult event which is remembered for its fateful “drinking of the Kool-Aid,” Sacrament plays almost identically in plot. The real magic here is in its effective set up; we believe in these characters (a good choice to ground the characters as VICE journalists, a modern day magazine that could conceivably cover such an unorthodox story), and with its effective handheld camerawork. Though its detractors might spark from not-enough “happenings,” or “story” to the film, its overall execution of what was intended to be captured and told is a harrowing first-person experience of the power, manipulation, and sacrifice that is found in faith, and fate. With its eventual upcoming distribution by Magnet Films, this film should be viewed and appreciated for its harrowing real-life depiction of evil, unlike any film I’ve seen before.