Sacrament, The (2013) d. Ti West (USA)
Utterly pedestrian, nonsensical, and cinematically frustrating retelling of the Jim Jones/People’s Temple massacre where over 900 American civilians lost their lives in 1978 in Guyana, either courtesy of the gun-toting camp guardians or by their own cyanide-laced Kool-Aid-bearing hands. More irritating than the uninspired appropriation of this real-life tragedy is writer/director West’s decision to tell the story “documentary-style” (a clear attempt to avoid the “found-footage” stamp, but let’s face it, that’s what it is), a formal choice that yields nothing except that which is lazy and sloppy.
When their photographer buddy Patrick (Kentucker Audley) receives a dispatch from his missing sister Caroline (Amy Seimetz), two VICE journalists Sam and Jake (AJ Bowen and Joe Swanberg) travel with him to an unnamed African region to locate and hopefully retrieve her. Upon landing, they are transported via pickup truck to the gates of Eden Parish, where they are stopped by armed protectors unpleasantly surprised to see three passengers instead of the expected single guest. But upon being granted permission via walkie talkie to enter the settlement, the trio is shown around what appears to be a shining example of social bliss. Everyone works together toward a common, communally harmonic goal, all under the loving hand of the charismatic settlement leader known only as Father (Gene Jones). The cynical Western outsiders naturally question the compound’s idyllic outward appearance, and soon (all-too-conveniently) learn that not everyone is happy in Eden; some are being held prisoner against their will, but Father will not let his errant children go.
Like many, I’m fascinated by the notion of religious cults. That demonstrably level-headed people would choose to abandon their decision-making powers to another person’s will and design is a foreign notion to most, and it’s a concept that should make for fertile storytelling. But West refuses to delve below the surface, painting absolutely by the numbers such that there are zero surprises. Things play out almost exactly as we suspect they will. We know that this is a cult, we know that bad things are going to happen, and when bad things do happen, we know that at least one of our journalist heroes will survive because how else would the footage get back to civilization such that someone could meticulously edit it together? (Don’t even get me started on the contrivances of some of the shots, or the fact that Patrick’s DSLR footage cuts seamlessly with Jake’s commercial rig, or the ghost camera footage in the third act, or the fact that we get a reverse shot of Sam and Jake running out of a hut when they would ultimately need to bring said camera along in order to have said reverse shot, or...)
|Pay no attention to that cameraman in the corner, boys...|
Further compounding the problem, West's characters are all thinly drawn and given naught but clunky platitudes to utter. Bowen and Swanberg are capable enough performers, but here they sound like C-level students in an Improvisation 101 class. Seimetz’s flappy-handed chipperness could be written off as intentionally false, but her shift to cold-blooded Kool-Aid pusher is equally suspect. Jones, who has received a fair share of critical praise, is decidedly captivating, but he’s also one note from start to finish, an affable egomaniac empowered by veiled menace. He has no arc, but then again, neither does anyone else. The most interesting character is probably Donna Biscoe’s compound doctor, but even she stays the Archetypes ‘R’ Us course alongside her co-stars.
The final act does feature some shocking scenes of death by self-immolation, bullets, and poison, thereby earning the film its horror pedigree, but even these are so conveniently captured that their impact is lost to the mind wandering/wondering how the footage came about. Which leads me to my final condemnation: if this is not intended to merely be found footage, i.e. someone actually intended to show this as a documentary of what actually happened at Eden Parish, then it’s the shabbiest, most haphazard example of documentary filmmaking I’ve ever seen. No professional, especially not one from a legitimate organization such as VICE, would presume to unload such shoddy work on its audience. By avoiding the found footage stigma but refusing to add the final coat of polish that would distinguish it as a professional piece of work, West strands himself and the viewer in no man’s land, watching a patently artificial version of a predictable true story.
I found myself wondering for days afterward why West hadn’t just done a straight period docudrama about Jonestown, considering he’d employed most of the touchstone elements (mass suicide by fruit punch, dark sunglasses, calling the Jones character “Father” a la Jones’ real-world “Papa,” a dramatic self-inflicted gunshot), and my guess is that he wanted to utilize the modern-era VICE conceit and the subsequent you-are-there urgency that accompanies a POV narrative (along with iPhones and DSLRs so the kids can, you know, relate). But considering how badly he fumbles the enterprise, one wishes that producer Eli Roth – who presumably knows a thing or two about commercial moviemaking – would have told him to stylistically commit to a full documentary presentation, a found-footage feature, or a standard narrative. West’s waffling results in a trite and ill-formed creation lacking any insight or dramatic verve, another in a continuing line of not-quite-there disappointments from a young director who apparently needs to be saved from himself.
Note: Discerning viewers would be better served by Stanley Nelson’s excellent (and real) 2006 documentary, Jonestown: The Life and Death of the People’s Temple, or Powers Boothe’s Emmy-winning turn in Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones, both found easily on YouTube.