The Sacrament (2014) - Can't Stop the Movies
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The Sacrament (2014)

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Sam and Jake are hosts of an online show where they go to dangerous territories to record what they find.  An associate, Patrick, received word from his sister that she has been living in a commune called Eden Parish and goes to visit.  When Sam finds out that there are strict rules and whiffs of controversy around the isolated camp, he decides to tag along and film the journey.  But what is going on at the Eden Parish, and why is everyone so reverent and terrified of the man known as Father?  The Sacrament is the latest horror film from writer/director Ti West.

The throne and the crossTi West's career as a director has been marked by an abnormally high level of restraint.  This makes him something of an anomaly in the world of horror where his closest stylistic cousin, James Wan, still sprinkles light scares in between the long takes of building tension.  West's modus operandi is usually a prologue and two acts of slow burn with one threat and then a film ending plunge into darkness.  The House of the Devil was a brilliant introduction to his style, showing the evolution of horror as a slight step back by fusing the '80s slasher with the religious horror of the late '60s and early '70s.

I don't have as firm a handle on The Sacrament, but that's because this exercise into found-footage has more to do with your average obnoxious Youtube host and less any specific breed of horror.  The final moments are as gripping as anything else West has done, but are less interesting than the opposing forces that duel out in dialogue beforehand.  The cult of the internet finds that whatever power it has over audience numbers still pales when confronted with a true charismatic demagogue.  Sam (A.J. Bowen), the host of VICE - The Sacrament's premier webshow/company about bored people putting themselves in danger for the sake of a good story - is always trying to find an angle for the next hit, unaware that his condescending approach blinds him to the problems glaring right at him.

When Sam is forced to share a frame the film can no longer be edited to maximize his condescending line of questions.

When Sam is forced to share a frame the film can no longer be edited to maximize his condescending line of questions.

Sam, both as the host and the interloper in this closed-off community, prefers to keep the space of the camera to himself.  There are many moments where the polite response to his many condescending questions feels like Sam edited his own "hard-hitting" question in later and then kept the villagers responses intact as a way of keeping the potential audience perception of his superiority.  His cowardice at direct confrontations is exposed during the dual camera interview with Father (Gene Jones) as Sam tries to lure him into a "gotcha" moment, introduced to any perspective other than his own and Sam falls.  The point is that reports of the internet's superior utility as a brainwashing tool is a bit far off, and we should still be wary more of the people talking, not the people hosting and editing.

That the two figures of cultish power in The Sacrament are both fairly well-off white men is also fitting.  The sets, costumes, and especially Gene Jones' performance as Father, give off hints of this landscape being what Southern United States plantations might have been with just a twinge of social awareness.  Sam, even with his heart supposedly in the right place, has no problems belittling the many black people working the fields of the plantation just as Father has little issue with telling them what they are permitted to do.  The insidious nature of systemic racism lies deep within these two lefty individuals, both blind to the full possibilities of their words and deeds.  Bowen and James' performances are both finely tuned to this, as they both condescend, but only Father has turned it into a philosophy to live and die by.

One things that I love about this potential for danger is that it is never hidden.  The Sacrament is so tense precisely because there is nowhere to hide.  The empty fields and light paint on the houses enhance the human figures even more as West keeps the camera mostly with his characters standing against the forested border on the horizon.  It forces people to live by their words more than normal as there is nothing for them to blend into if they really need to flee, keeping out focus entirely on everyone's body language for hints at their discomfort.


The mere fact that these captions are present in the film hint at who will make it out of Eden Parish alive.

Of course, when the proverbial fecal matter hits the air mover The Sacrament is gripping, but I was more interested in this tension than the wave of homicidal and suicidal urges that propel the climax.  As The Sacrament wears its Jonestown Massacre influences proudly, the violence comes off more as West delivering on a debt and not cultivating a dark fuse until its ready to go off.  This violence does culminate in one absolutely chilling scene when a character begs to be released from his families love because it only means death.

But The Sacrament is more interesting for me to think about than it is to watch.  I enjoyed the thoughts I had watching the film while looking at the balance between electronic and physical cults, the deadly assumptions of the white leaders in these charged spaces, and the perverted take on familial love at the end.  The package just didn't come entirely together and ascend to a great experience.  It's still enough for me to recommend, but more on the hopes that I'll have good conversations around what connections people made while watching the film, and a bit less on their enjoyment of it.

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The Sacrament - TailThe Sacrament (2014)

Screenplay written and directed by Ti West.
Starring A.J. Bowen,  Gene Jones, Kentucker Audley, and Amy Seimetz.

Posted by Andrew

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