“Ti West has stepped outside his traditional, supernatural approach to tell a story about religion and manipulation!”
The Sacrament is the latest film from director Ti West. Following on from The Innkeepers (2011) and The House of the Devil (2009), West has taken the plunge into the crowded world of found-footage films.
The film focuses on two film makers of ‘immersionist’ documentaries: Sam and Jake. They agree to accompany their colleague Patrick, a photojournalist, as he travels to the commune of Eden Parish where his sister is living following her release from rehab for drug abuse.
The trio arrive at the commune by helicopter and the pilot tells them that he will wait no longer than the following morning. After being escorted into the commune by armed guards who try to take both their cameras and their passports, they are are initially shaken but then reassured when they safely meet up with Patrick’s sister, Caroline. However, as their journey into the heart of Eden Parish continues, they come to realise things are not quite as they seem.
Eden Parish is a commune run by ‘the Father’. It was was set up to take the disenfranchised and downtrodden members of communities away from their previous squalor and unhappiness, providing them with a new life away from the prying eyes and opinions of mainland America. The Father, portrayed by Gene Jones, is doting to his followers whilst quietly manipulating their weaknesses. He answers the questions of the film crew with an air of avoidance that would make most politicians envious.
The Sacrament is a big step away from his comfort zone for Ti West, the found-footage aspects are very different to films such as The Innkeepers where he was able to put his personality and quirks across. It attempts to tackle some big topics within its narrative: the manipulative and controlling facets of religion and the consumerist and imperialist tendencies of the American public and its leaders. Herein lies the problem, these aspects are only touched upon. The film lacks the punch and intelligence to tackle these subjects head-on in a way that makes it engaging or original. For all the pontificating, not a single original idea is actually put forward.
One of its key strengths is the documentary-feel provided by the found-footage approach. There is little new ground covered here yet the portrayal of Eden Parish is authentic and the interviews with the residents display insight into the minds of those vulnerable and desperate enough to give up their previous lives in the hope of salvation. The initial arrival at the camp and the investigation around its origins, including an effective interview with the Father, are the most interesting parts of the film. The set-up is thorough and realistic but, as the sinister layers beneath begin to reveal themselves, it begins to wobble.
Despite the documentary-feel of the film being an initial strength, the found-footage perspective also presents a problem. The excellent camera work is explained by the inclusion of a documentary making team yet there are a number of shots towards the climax of the film that feel manufactured. In addition, there are a number of third person shots that compromise the immersive-feel that West builds up so well.
One of the key plot points that leads us to care about the characters, besides the sibling relationship at its crux, is that Sam’s wife back in America is expecting a child. This thread is woven into the dialogue a number of times, yet appears to be included solely to gather audience sympathy for a character that – for the most part – is condescending and irritating. There is no pay off for this thread, something particularly frustrating due its numerous appearances.
The finale shows the commune descending into anarchy, with the Father manipulating the presence of the film crew, taking a predictable route for a film featuring a cult. However, in the midst of the chaos, there are a number of interesting scenes. The culmination in the sibling relationship is brutal and effective, as is cameraman Jake’s foray into the jungle to ensure the helicopter pilot will return on time. The film builds to a tense if predictable ending.
Ti West has stepped outside his traditionally supernatural approach to tell a story about religion and manipulation. Sadly, it is too bland to make a real statement about any of the issues it wants to address and ultimately fails to rise above the found-footage label and all the associated baggage of this subgenre.
Director: Ti West
Starring: Gene Jones, AJ Bowen, Joe Swanberg, Kentucker Audley, Amy Seimetz
Running Time: 95 mins
DVD Release Date: 7 July 2014
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