Tuesday, May 13, 2014

The Sacrament


**** ½

The Sacrament is a film I believe that finally justifies all that lavish praise heralded at Ti West for a few years now. The Roost and Cabin Fever 2 (the latter, West doesn’t claim as his own) weren’t all that praised. The Roost (a film I sort of liked a little) had certain aspects that showed his potential, while Cabin Fever 2 was this mess of awfulness that seemed to justify the criticism against him. I found his segments in VHS & especially The ABCs of Death to be almost completely worthless. House of the Devil, considered his masterpiece (particularly in its evocation of 70s/80s dark house/Satanist horror), and his The Innkeepers (the jury’s still out, it seems; I have mostly read mixed reaction, mostly negative, and outright dislike, but I’m one of them that liked it up until the rather blah final minutes) seemed to have brought his fame on the downside, not helped by the aforementioned work above.
I think The Sacrament, a film about a documentary crew observing and shooting a spiritual cult in America operated like an isolated commune outside the rules and regulations “imposed” by the government and society, is West’s best film. It isn’t flashy at all. It is shot found footage, yet this time around I believe the terror that is shown by those before us on screen is very real and downright horrifying. Because it feels all too real and history of Jonestown backs this up, The Sacrament can get under the skin, provide food for thought, and keep you up at night. The weight of being pinned within the confines of the commune dictated by a charismatic, convincing, manipulative figure who had a way with words and a presentation that won hearts and minds even though a lot of his beliefs and views were warped and twisted to prey on the vulnerable and in need of guidance, is all produced in this found footage format that I found totally genuine. So often found footage feels authentic to a point but eventually is undone by inauthentic problems that are glaring (performances of characters or results that question the legitimacy of cameras shooting what we see), but The Sacrament does feel like recorded events by endangered journalists behind enemy lines.
All, at first, seems somewhat cordial and not altogether threatening, but as the commune is photographed and spotlighted by the limited crew, and dormant feelings by those who live there lurk from behind frightened hearts and out in the open, the collapse of this false idyll reveals an immense dark side soon to spiral totally out of control, resulting in an en masse suicide (or "forced" suicide; with those not wanting to take a drink from the poisoned cup going to die one way or another) orchestrated by their leader and shootings conducted by guards not allowing members to leave the place. Seeing this start and end the way it does, the helicopter ride out perhaps is the one “glitch” that might be considered implausible. I didn’t mind it because the found footage has to get to us somehow. It just makes sense that someone (or two/three) would get out to bring this tragic account to us.
Seeing images of a large number of dead in the Jonestown event returned as West himself provides a similar influx of horror before us. Watching as innocent people are executed like vermin is as shocking as it should be. Feeling how scared our documentary crew heroes are within the out-of-control tragic unraveling is expertly performed and shot. It needs to feel real and authentic or the impact doesn’t have resonance. I remember feeling exactly the same way with Uwe Boll’s underrated (and to me, his best film), Rampage (2010). There’s an eventual escalation of murder and human lives lost (both to suicide and annihilation) and we see it from the beginning to its end. Boll and his killer show little mercy and begging victims are wiped out in cold-blooded fashion. This wasn’t a pleasant experience. My heart beated fast, anxiety picked up, and I had plenty of gulps in the throat. Probably the most startling kill/suicide is from a young woman from privilege--who is friends with the documentary crew, having gone to the commune in search of a spiritual life that would offer her something significant absent materialistic needs and capitalist desires--poisoning her brother and setting herself on fire afterward. I dunno: a mother taking a machete to her daughter’s throat is damn potent, too! 

The Sacrament, to me, without a doubt, is on fire when the actor Gene Jones (as the Jim Jones cult leader) is present and talking. This one scene—I think the very best of the film—has AJ Bowen’s filmmaker interviewing Jones. Here, we see why he is revered and felt so highly of. When there are important questions asked to him (about taxes and the need for guns and the guards that hold them), he carefully finds ways around them, steering away and getting the crowd involved so he doesn’t have to address them, clever cat-and-mouse that astutely allows him to avoid the truth and maintain his hold over his audience. I was reminded of Andy Griffith in A Face in the Crowd: equipped with this folksy charm, communicative repartee, keen ability to captivate, and way of mesmerizing people from walks of life that were unflattering and downtrodden (holding on his every word). Many in society (the lower rungs and outer edges) in need of something to believe in and in search of guidance when all feels lost (or they are unable to function within it for whatever reason) might very well be led into what we see in The Sacrament. Call it a warning of what could be (and an example of what has happened in the past) if you wish, The Sacrament is like a telling reminder of power corrupting absolutely and the unwillingness of a leader to part ways with what provided him such power (and men with guns willing to obliterate in his name). This is close to a masterpiece in the genre of found footage. For me, this is about as good as what a filmmaker can do with found footage. A camera capturing the corpses of a whole community will (or should) leave quite a many mouths agape. A gunshot suicide at the very end punctuates how the absence of power and loss of hero worship leaves nothing left but a sad residue of destroyed lives.

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