Magnolia Pictures (2014) 99 min. R
Director: Ti West
Screenplay: Ti West
Cinematography: Eric Robbins; Editing: Ti West
Production Design: Jade Healy; Set Decoration: Adam Willis
Costumes: Wendy Moynihan; Score: Tyler Bates
Stars: A.J. Bowen (Sam Turner), Joe Swanberg (Jake Williams), Kentucker Audley (Patrick), Amy Seimetz (Caroline), Gene Jones (Father), Kate Lyn Sheil (Sarah White), Talia Dobbins (Savannah), Donna Biscoe (Wendy Johnson), Lashaun Clay (Robert Evans), Dale Neal (Andre Evans), Shirley Jones Byrd (Lorraine Davis), Christian O’Jore (Pilot)
Personally directed, written and edited by Ti West, The Sacrament is very much an auteur piece and like his earlier, equally unpleasant House of the Devil, West has again returned to an ’80s milieu for inspiration. Despite its contemporary setting, The Sacrament is actually a none too thinly disguised reworking of the 1978 incident at Jonestown, Guyana in which the parishioners of a religious commune known as the People’s Temple committed mass suicide following the assassination of visiting Congressman Leo Ryan and several of his aides seen as outside threats by loyalist sect members.
When the journalists accompanying Congressman Ryan’s party inadvertently captured their own murder on camera as they were ambushed and gunned down by Jonestown’s militiamen while boarding for departure, the snippets which played on TV comprised some of the most horrifying found footage of our modern media age, and these ancestral memories are what The Sacrament seeks to invoke with its subject matter. The movie’s final shot for instance is an explicit reproduction of the alarming sight which first greeted authorities and news crews when they arrived at the remote location by helicopter, finding the gathered bodies of close to a thousand mass murder-suicides strewn about Jonestown’s central pavilion.
In fact, The Sacrament has so clearly been modeled after the historic incident, we wonder why West keeps up the charade that this is supposed to be an original idea, complete with an unconvincing epilogue tacked on to wrap things up. Inviting comparison to the actual event in this manner simply serves to impart a sheen of paltriness and pinch to this low-budget, indie variation. When the credits crawl claim the 167 cast members purported to perish here made the incident ‘one of the largest mass suicides in recorded history,’ we want to chortle because those figures seem like chickenfeed in comparison to the real numbers forced to take their own lives at Jonestown. Budgetary constraints reduce The Sacrament to a poor, pale shadow of the event that inspired it. The overwhelming scale of the real life tragedy made it far more harrowing. The Sacrament isn’t a horror film per se, like House of the Devil, though it certainly contains horror elements. They’re just not of the typical supernatural variety; there’s nothing here that couldn’t happen (and has). The movie is not even as pure a product of the found footage genre as it would seem to be, since much of the material was consciously captured and professionally framed for purposes of a planned documentary, becoming the sole surviving firsthand account of the events at Eden Parish only after the fact. The Sacrament is in a bizarre class all its own, and just as closely akin to psychological thrillers about mind-controlling cults like Ticket to Heaven and Martha Marcy May Marlene as films about disastrous expeditions to unexplored regions of the earth like Aguirre and Cannibal Holocaust, cinema’s most notorious ‘found footage’ horror film, made before the genre even existed, and a movie Sacrament producer Eli Roth is supposed to be remaking, heaven help us.
While some viewers may find West’s exploitative attempt to turn real life tragedy to the purpose of cheap fictional thrills distasteful, reducing what happened at Jonestown to a green inferno splatter flick for a quick buck, he’s at least allotted a respectful amount of time to pass. Several generations have grown up in the interim that possess no living memory of the Jonestown massacre, so The Sacrament might seem like entirely fresh spoils from their perspective. As opposed to the needless screen rehashing of other horror stories of the era like Friday the 13th, The Amityville Horror, and Poltergeist, West should at least be credited for his original concept. And to naysayers who feel the exploitative horror genre lacks the delicate sensitivity such a sore spot in our nation’s psyche demands, I would ask what subject could be better suited to horror? Make believe bogeymen can’t compare with the persuasively spellbinding sociopaths and mercenary wolves in sheep’s clothing one encounters in real life. What happened at Jonestown and inspired the subject matter of The Sacrament just seems to get timelier with each passing year, as we witness the latest Branch Davidian, Heaven’s Gate or Solar Temple crop up. Considering the number of mind washing mass suicide cults that have followed, Jonestown proved to have just been the first of legion.
When Sam (A.J. Bowen), the Vice magazine journalist accompanying a reporter colleague (Kentucker Audley) whose sister (Amy Seimetz) has joined the religious sect of Eden Parish, is taken prisoner by the cult leader we half expect him to be sacrificed to Satan or something, as the babysitter was in House of the Devil. The Sacrament’s title however refers specifically to a religious rite wherein the faithful partake of bread and water to symbolically renew their covenant with Christ. So it’s the parish members themselves who end up consecrating their bodies as a living offering, “holy and pleasing to the lord (Romans 12:1),” by passing around a tray full of cyanide-laced liquid refreshment. They drink deep from this grail to further prove their faith and commitment. As in West’s House of the Devil, the theme of The Sacrament concerns the destructive hold of religion when jurisdiction over the immortal souls of others is placed in the hands of false prophets who prey on the most emotionally vulnerable of marks, ‘born outcasts never given a chance’ – widows, seniors, blacks, foreigners, the poor, alcoholics, drug addicts, the sort of people mainstream society turns its back on. “I can’t help thinking desperation is a lot of what brought people here. But if they’re happy now, who am I to say anything?” Sam opines in his op-ed piece on the Parish, videotaped by cameraman Jake (Joe Swanberg).
An orchestrated picture of an ideal planned community (“You spoke with who Father wanted you to speak with.”), the residents have been carefully coached to present themselves ‘in the way the lord’ has taught them, in order to sell their lifestyle to the inquisitive cameramen. The reporters’ initial, unwelcome reception by hostile armed guards then, catches the camp with its pants down, fostering negative first impressions that reflect poorly on the parish. Walking in so late in the day, when things have already begun to unravel, we get our only sense of the high ideals and intentions that originally inspired the devout to sell all their worldly possessions and seek spiritual salvation by relocating to the middle of nowhere, through seemingly sincere and heartfelt testimonials by parishioners like Lorraine Davis (Shirley Jones Byrd), who everyone calls Miss D.
Their personal accounts illuminate the myriad reasons worshipers were initially drawn to the Parish. Sam observes, “As far as utopias go it has something for everybody. If it’s spirituality you want, they’ve got it. If it’s progressive politics, they got it. If it’s a technology-free hippie lifestyle you’re looking for, they’ve got that too.” The residents’ seeming peace and contentment with the place serves to put us back at our ease after that inhospitable welcome, so that we begin to feel, along with the newsmen, that this might not be such a bad way of life after all. Introducing characters individually and giving each their moment to shine, revealing a bit about them and their personal history, makes them real people in our minds, so that what happens to them at the end hits us that much harder. With a bit more character development this sleeper could have proven a minor masterpiece of the found footage genre. As is, these vignettes give us our only real insight into the inner workings of Eden Parish.
The Sacrament places its own spell of sorts over viewers, swaying them into believing the claims that the parishioners are working to build a socialist utopia, another Eden on earth. Expecting to find a spacey commune occupied by new age hippies, Sam is instead completely won over by how psyched everyone seems, (“I’m starting to understand why people would want to live like this….to better understand where they’re coming from.”), proving how easy it is to be brainwashed despite oneself. So his more hardboiled cameraman serves as our resident cynic in the face of Sam’s sunny acquiescence, expressing doubts about whether this is a sustainable lifestyle. Serving as our doubting Thomas, Jake’s agnosticism reintroduces some serious misgivings of our own, our skepticism piqued by the subsequent appearance of a skittish mother who states that worshipers aren’t allowed to talk about the parish to strangers. Given this gag order, it’s unlikely that the muteness of her daughter Savannah (Talia Dobbins) is intended as anything other than symbolic, the physical manifestation of the parishioners inability to speak out for fear of reprisal. So when her throat is cut at the end, it’s the equivalent of being permanently silenced.
The antsy way parishioners respond to being filmed makes it evident to us and the journalists that they’re keeping something quiet, despite their protests to the contrary. Like all survivalist sects that distrust the infringement of big government on civil liberties, Eden Parish sees the encroachment of these unbelievers from outside as a potential threat to their way of life. Wary of media exposure, not wanting the parish to be publicly mocked or presented in a negative light, their obvious discomfort around the cameras enhances the prevailing vibe of paranoia. They protest far too much that they have nothing to hide, undermining belief in their claims that the compound is one big happy family. The truth only starts to seep out as the newsmen dig deeper, drawing aside the sheets strung up on a clothesline as if they were parting theater curtains, peeling away successive layers to get at the truth laying at the inner sanctum. Suddenly everything becomes colored in a different light, with no one at Eden Parish appearing to be who they seemed at first. Things go to hell in the second half, turning the corner after Savannah passes Sam a hastily scrawled note asking for help. When the wary cameramen return to the pavilion concert afterward, the entire atmosphere has changed from friendly and joyous to ominous and portentous with the spiritually rapt congregation in their ecstatic state appearing not far removed from the signs we’d normally associate with demonic possession. It’s a tent revival worthy of snake handling and speaking in tongues. Savannah is depicted in the tradition of Newt from Aliens and all those other little girls in horror films with a tangled mass of streaming hair concealing half their face. Her retreating, wraith-like form as she winds through the crowd, a spectral figure with her dress fluttering like a white flame, gets crossed with the unexpected appearance of Caroline stalking like a caged tiger through the crowds, keeping a careful eye on the inquisitive intruders, “Your friend’s sister is one of them. She’s done terrible things to people who act out,” we’re told, as if Caroline had suddenly been subsumed by body snatchers. She’s constantly being pressed into service for stock shock effects like this, popping out from nowhere just to say boo! The tempo quickens considerably during this tightly paced second half, editor West splicing together all the footage picked up at various locations to build suspense, first with the mass suicides, then the roving gunmen prowling the grounds, shooting the prone bodies to make doubly sure everyone is dead. The stark shift in tone might have been jarring under other circumstances, but the alternate twilight zone we enter at the midway point works quite well here.
Our anticipation at meeting the leader of Eden Parish, the ‘Father’ everyone keeps raving about, is tantamount to the journalists’ own, stoked by the constant references to him, the tantalizing praises sung by everyone about him, and the sound of his voice issuing like a Pied Piper over the loud speakers. Played by Gene Jones, whose last name seems quite apt given the circumstances, few actors have ever been accorded such a flatteringly big build up, so when he finally makes his entrance it’s in the grand, theatrical fashion, our applause cued by the outsize reaction of his flock at having him deign to descend from on high and mingle among them. Jones, who narrated several episodes of Ken Burns mammoth documentary on The Civil War, possesses an orotund, avuncular vocal range, but his character isn’t given a grand finale to match the substance of his fabulous entrance, so we never get a very clear idea of his theological doctrines. Yet he keeps us transfixed all the same, as he combines the spiel of a carnival barker (the sort he played in Oz – The Great and Powerful), with the spiritual self-righteousness of a fire and brimstone televangelist.
Like other dangerous demagogues, he has the ability to mesmerize listeners with the power of suggestion, so he might be re-staging the Nuremberg rallies at this concentration camp that will become a death oven. As Sam observes of the carefully orchestrated theatrical spectacle, “Everything just sort of got swept up in this weird energy and … I couldn’t think straight. He had a way about him. It was hard to focus.” Jones needs a more personal scene that better explains his background and where he’s coming from and at what point his seemingly sound belief system went so awry, but as far as soapbox preaching goes, he has several truly powerful scenes that allow his oratory to rise right up to the level of David Oyelowo’s in Selma, one the words of a messiah, the other those of the Antichrist. But despite his persuasive pitch, the actor’s best moment may be the silent passage where he totters, stunned, through the desolate landscape littered with lifeless bodies, the enormity of what he’s wrought fully sinking in.
His Father’s been graced with such a silver tongue, forked though it may be, he can even talk his congregation into killing themselves in the creepy concluding chapters by actually making it sound like an attractive idea (“Don’t be afraid. It’s just stepping over onto the other side…we’re going to a better place now… we’re just going to sleep.”). Father’s maddeningly becalmed speaking voice issuing over the sound system to sedate denizens with subliminal messages (“Before that sermon was over I was sold. That man has a way of speaking…”), fills the skies, making them believe they’re hearing voices from heaven, which don’t at all tally with the hellacious images we’re shown. Wanting the world to see, through this document, that his congregation is prepared to die for their beliefs, the visual evidence contradicts him, telling a different story. When the camera cuts back to the pavilion, the seemingly serene complacency of the faithful proves to have been the lull before the storm. The placid scene has erupted into roiling chaos, a glorified Goya crossed with Hieronymus Bosch, full of wailing, writhing bodies, rifle fire, a scene out of hell. Those who don’t go along with the program like Patrick, are helped on their way by lethal injection or gun shot. Despite Father’s assurances that they’d go gently into that dark night after drinking the potion he’d bubbled and brewed, it’s seen to be an excruciatingly slow, painful process, the parishioners’ death throes attended by convulsions and foaming at the mouth. Their messy end simply confirms with what cunning this false prophet had always pulled the wool over the eyes of worshipers he claimed never to have lied to.
Jones gives the part all he’s got, same as his character claims to have given his congregation, proving himself a master of manipulation as he plays on a range of audience emotions. Professing to still be one of the po’ people and to understand their pain, he assumes a hypocritical mask of benevolent humility with all the false folksiness of an Andy Griffith. Yet when he becomes subtly menacing, he can throw his weight around like the kingpin of some pan-international drug cartel. A creeping dread attends his performance, akin to what we felt with Javier Bardem’s soulless sociopath in No Country for Old Men, in which Jones also appeared. He’s an unstoppable force of nature operating on some strange, internal logic of his own and lacking any semblance of a finer conscience. Capitalist, socialist, fascist, revolutionary, conservative, progressive, Father is a complete contradiction in terms, like all the most fascinatingly complex of fictional characters, even if this one was originally based in fact.
Eden Parish’s reverend father cottons to picking up one or two of “God’s lost children” at every stop he made performing missionary work around the country, swelling the ranks of the faithful before relocating his church to a remote, unspecified backwater. He draws converts to his ministry by convincing the hopeless it wouldn’t be hard to give up everything to follow him when they have so little to begin with. He binds them to the sect by bribing them with the selfsame worldly goods he claims to reject, telling his parishioners if they come to Eden Parish he’ll give them a place to live, a job, some food, a bed ‘whatever you need,’ including sex and drugs as long as they toe the line by doing whatever he says. Brainwashed to obey reflexively (“One must not question what’s best for the parish.”), he brokers no dissidence, even when wary members begin to waver and lose faith.
Always believed to be right, his will uncontested as the spokesman for God’s good and pleasing and perfect will, Father claims to be from all over (“I’ve been in every big city and every small town.”) like Satan himself, same as he goes by many names. Asked why he’s called ‘Father’ by his devout congregation, he sidesteps the question after admitting his given name to be Charles Anderson Reed, but it’s clear to us precisely why they do that. It’s not simply that he sees them as his children but because this man who’s set himself up as a god over this superstitious jungle outpost, wants them to look upon him in return as a paternal, all-knowing great white father, an authority figure with all the associated heavenly connotations that title confers, turning The Sacrament into a quick trip through the heart of darkness. His power having gone to his head and corrupted him right down to the marrow, he wants his parishioners to see him in a divine light, the instrument of God’s will on earth. Holding court, blinded by his own inner brilliance, he wears shades even at night, to hide his ferrety, untrustworthy eyes and dilated pupils, the perfect utopia he’d envisioned ending up the grand delusion of a drug addled, paranoid mind.
Eden Parish was planned as a paradise on earth, where worshipers could live free of the inherent sins of worldly society, as God intended, purifying themselves and forming a closer relationship with Him. “Father created Eden Parish not as a place to get away but as a place to start over. It is a new beginning,” much as it was in Jonestown, named after the eponymous first permanent English settlement in America, where immigrants from the Old World likewise came for a fresh start. The heavenly cant Father spouts has the ring of socialism, with its renunciation of the material world, everyone having sold off their personal belongings, given up worldly goods, or contributed their life savings, pooling their resources into the parish (“You’d be surprised what… people can do when they come together.”). Having built the community as one, parishioner Andre (Dale Neal) states “This is how we’re supposed to be living… Everybody here is in it together… There’s no one man for himself,” while father questions the worldly reporters if that’s “what money means to you? A life? We don’t worship capitalism and materialism. We came down here to live off the land. That’s the way America started but they don’t allow it anymore.”
Yet the very fact that parishioners are required to sell their homes and donate the profits to the church throws up the red flag, revealing Eden Parish to be just another corrupt capitalist business, the church used as a tax evasion racket (“Father is a businessman on top of all things. That tends to get overlooked.”). They’re even in the market to secure additional funding through Caroline’s family connections. She invites Patrick to visit not out of any particular sense of brotherly love but so their wealthy, Upper West Side parents can be milked for more money to finance the parish’s continued expansion. With both their children held hostage, enslaved by either their drug habit or the temptations of the flesh, it would be an easy matter to bilk them. When Sam cajoles Father with “everyone we’ve talked to seems to feel that this is everything they’ve ever wanted and they credit you with that,” he says he doesn’t deserve credit for building Eden Parish, that they all did it together as a communal effort. Which still hasn’t prevented him from setting himself up as ruler by divine right over his flock. Even at the end when he tells them they’ll all die together, he doesn’t bother drinking from the same poisoned chalice his followers do, rather choosing a quicker, less painful exit for himself.
After having gone to the trouble of isolating themselves from the world like old school survivalists wanting to live off the grid, the new Eden these parishioners cleaved out of the earth becomes every bit as corrupt as the society they fled. Erected under Father’s own personal jurisdiction, Eden Parish is like a police state rather than the socialist utopia he expounds. Sirens blare at all hours of day or night keeping parishioners sleep deprived (“I don’t think we slept more than three hours a night for six months while we were building it.”) and drawing them to the town square when attendance is mandatory, making the compound seem as closely regulated by Big Brother, in the form of Father, as anything out of Orwell. Visitors need to make a donation to get into the parish and passports are confiscated so nobody can get back out. Having sold off everything and been left without monetary means, defectors would have nothing to start out on even if they could get away. Armed sentries scour the grounds from signal towers as if this were some war-torn, third world country under the curfew of a military coup, as roving bands of rifle brandishing guerrillas roam the perimeter, picking off people indiscriminately.
Saying he knows what it’s like to lose hope and feel trapped, Father claims there’s none of that at Eden Parish, despite the fact that he’s holding his flock hostage at gunpoint. Set in a largely inaccessible South American jungle region, with its own laws, borders, army, medical center and day care, Eden Parish is a self-governing city with everything it needs to thrive as an independent state, accountable to no higher power. But rather than considering himself a totalitarian tyrant, Father places himself in the same martyred ranks of such assassinated ’60s social activists as Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and the Kennedys, men struck down in their prime for trying to achieve the great society he believes he has. He professes a willingness to die fighting for what he believes in, “but why die fighting when you can remove yourself from the fight altogether and create something new, a place without violence? Romans 12:2 – ‘Do not conform any longer to the patterns of this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.’ ” Describing what they’re trying to do as something radical, he paints himself as a Moses figure leading his people in Exodus to a Promised Land.
Claiming to have removed his flock from the ‘foundations of a cancerous society,’ the poverty, crime, greed and racism that characterizes most cities, Father has still created a society whose undercurrents play into those same social ills. Even if kept carefully concealed and sublimated, they simmer just beneath the surface. It’s no coincidence that a disproportionate majority of Eden Parish’s members happen to be black, toiling under the blazing southern sun like field hands imprisoned on the grounds by a paternal ‘big daddy,’ a great white Father figure who resides in the big house. The way he patronizes his slave labor as trusting, obedient souls in need of a firm guiding hand, earmarks this sect as some latter day southern plantation. If the journalists want a clear definition for imperialism, as Jake requests, they have a working prototype right in front of them. While Eden Parish’s official statement claims the congregation has tried to distance itself from American imperialism, the concept has still been invoked in the form of a colonial outpost run in stereotypical fashion by a degraded, drug addicted overseer. Father believes the nation is failing, that America is “coming apart at the seams due to the way it’s being run” by its first black president, but the trajectory of the film seems to show what can happen when black folk put their trust in the hands of false white prophets who claim to have their best interests at heart. Yet the movie still feels the need to take us into this predominately black experience by way of white proxies, represented by the gentrified eyes of the media establishment, however fringe, hip and cutting edge Vice magazine is made to seem. Despite the available black talent to hand, this story is told largely from the white perspective, causing The Sacrament to come across as the cinematic equivalent of white man’s burden.
The concept of family and outsiders is essential to The Sacrament, whether it be biological blood ties or the brothers and sisters the parishioners have chosen for themselves in this religious community, forsaking their given relations for a new extended family. Much as Caroline claims the defectors can’t leave and split up their families (which is pretty much what she was trying to do by keeping her brother Patrick down on the farm to ransom), Father uses fear tactics to whip the populace into hysteria by claiming the government will send soldiers to burn their homes, take their children and murder them all as it did at Waco. But despite the importance he places on preserving the family unit, it’s on Father’s orders that his followers are all permanently separated by death, bullied into drinking the poisoned Kool-Aid, or gunned down in the back as they try to flee the compound.
Characterizing their mass suicide as an act of revolution “We’d rather die than go back to their way of life,” he sounds much like the elder Evans brother Robert (Lashaun Clay) who had stated, more prophetically than he realized at the time, that he’d rather die than return to the urban ghetto his entire family had crawled out of to relocate to Eden Parish. He believes the high crime rate would’ve numbered his days, failing to realize how little life is valued in his present circumstances. Having intended to lay down his life with his family, straggler Andre, who Jake stumbles across after he’s taken the laced drink, instead finds himself abandoned, the sole survivor as his people left him behind one by one to go meet their maker. Father addresses the elderly black woman Miss D. as ‘Mother,’ as if she were the matriarchal head of this congregation, but since he has no real wife in evidence, the way he leaves the pavilion interview hand and hand with Caroline would make it appear their relationship is far from familial.
Caroline, who turned to drugs and then religion to escape her family and unhappy home life, claims that Eden Parish “was my home! All these people, they were my own family, they’re all gone, don’t you understand? I have nothing left,” just as she earlier turned on Patrick with, “You are not my family, I made a big mistake.” Before immolating herself, going up like a Tiki torch, she can tenderly cradle her brother in her arms while simultaneously slipping him a lethal injection. These little personal dramas have a cumulative effect intended to emphasize the larger travesty of Father killing off all his ‘children’ rather than be defied or allow them to defect, seeing himself in the same terms as their heavenly father who did the same with flood and fire. “I couldn’t let ‘em go. I tried. God knows I tried. I gave ‘em all I could, then I gave ‘em a way out.”
Like Abraham’s offering of Isaac, these cult members are required to make the ultimate sacrifice by killing the thing they love most (“And greater love hath no man than this – that he lay down his life for his friend.” – John 15:13.”), nurturing mothers encouraged to smother their babies just as Savannah’s mother Mindy (Kate Forbes) cuts her daughter’s throat after trying so desperately to save her. Parents give life, this one takes it away, Father raining down death on his trusting congregation as he gently rocks them to eternal sleep. When Sam pleads for his life on the grounds that he’s expecting a child, his cracked and fractured ‘Father’ alter ego vindictively sneers, “You destroyed my family. One day you’ll understand,” presumably once Sam’s a father himself and can gauge its importance. Given the imminent arrival of his own little stranger, the entire film might be first time father Sam’s private nightmare of how bad a daddy one can become, a projection of his worst fears about his new paternal role and his unsuitability for it. The Father of Eden Parish stands as a demonstrable example of everything not to do if he doesn’t want to go wrong.
By depicting the downfall of this socialist experiment (“We were doing something great down here. We were gonna change the world. This was only the beginning. Why couldn’t you leave us alone?”), The Sacrament serves as commentary on why the concept can’t work when exercised by ruthless banana republic dictators who deal with defectors as mercilessly as if they were trying to slip out from behind the iron curtain. As Savannah’s mother states, “They hurt people who go against the parish.” In a sense, the downfall of this ‘paradise’ can be read as a perverse variation on the original expulsion from the garden (“You brought violence on us…”), mankind’s fall from grace instigated by an insidious snake in the grass (“He was right about you! He was right about all of you. You came here to destroy us from within. I didn’t want to believe it. I fought for you to come here…” Caroline accuses). But the Pandora’s Box the camera’s presence blows the lid off existed in Eden Parish long before the reporters arrived. So instead of a paradise lost, it’s Father’s hypocritical, corrupt empire that’s really being razed and dismantled. With Eden revealed to have actually been a hell on earth, its consumption in flames as a defector determines to burn it to the ground provides a suitably apocalyptic ending, the likes of which Father had long predicted would be his Parish’s fate. Despite all his false assurances about the sweet hereafter, the reporters prove the only souls raised up out of this weltering hell hole, the only ones chosen to ascend up into heaven by helicopter at the end.
Sam’s jarring pavilion sit down with Father is The Sacrament’s central set piece since we learn a little about his origins and personal philosophy as well as that of his Parish, and momentarily glimpse the uncomfortable reality seeping through what’s actually being said. We also become privy to the way Father wields power over his people through his psychological mind games and manipulation of Sam. While the reporter apologizes to his cameraman profusely for dropping the ball, believing they haven’t obtained the sort of hard-hitting footage they were gunning for, this scene actually allows director West to show us precisely what we’re meant to discern in regard to the dynamics of Eden Parish. Journalists are supposed to be professionals before the camera, so it’s unsettling when Father proves himself even more adept than they are at using the media to manipulate public opinion. He’ll only hold an open dialogue in front of his mind-controlled minions, smiling, constantly clapping sycophants who howl down any protest and erupt into spontaneous applause at every other word he says. The pervading air of barely restrained mass hysteria dictates the course of questioning, furthering the situation to Father’s own ends. When inconsistencies are pointed out in his philosophy and the way the camp is run, such as the presence of guns among this supposedly pacifist sect, Father subtly turns the tables, the world shifting ever so slightly as he assumes the role of chief accuser, taking the interview over just as surely as he’ll later seize control of the newsmen’s camera. Catching him off guard by bringing up the subject of Sam’s wife and unborn child in a vaguely menacing manner to demonstrate his omniscience, the focus of the interview is redirected to the point where it becomes Father who’s invading the reporter’s privacy. He might be threatening to harm his family if the parish he considers “my own family, my own children,” is endangered by Sam’s irresponsible news coverage. Warning him to seriously consider that he’s “dealing with their lives,” in a more mortal way than he could possibly know, before putting his personal spin on the story, he relates that “You have a great responsibility and I hope you’re aware of it.” Sam claims that his magazine doesn’t spin things, that they try to be honestly objective, but The Sacrament, despite presenting itself as having been done in the same inquisitive spirit of journalistic investigation, is anything but objective, given its hyped up recreation of the Jonestown massacre highlighted by colorfully inventive thrill kills. Rather than attempting to document things dispassionately, there’s certainly nothing in West’s potboiler approach that would dispel Father’s prejudice against the media as being “lies upon lies upon lies; anything that will sell more copies.” This paranoid belief will ultimately set him on the desperate course of his final solution, preventing the Vice reporters from returning to New York for fear that they will tell tales about his parish’s practices. But by having Father stroke Sam’s ego, single him out as ‘different,’ the rare reporter who actually cares about the stories he’s covering, it’s clear that director West sees himself in the same empathetic, evenhanded light.
Despite their attempt to remain objective bystanders, impassively recording as things unfold, these reporters stand accused of negatively impacting the natural outcome of events, an accusing Father questioning “Do you take your responsibility for those lives?” When cameraman Jake expresses an adamant desire to leave without becoming any more deeply enmeshed in what’s happening, The Sacrament takes a daring stab at attacking the apathetic creed of journalism itself, to report on events without directly influencing them in any way or becoming emotionally involved oneself. Not wanting to admit that the parishioners aren’t permitted to leave, Caroline exhorts Sam not to concern himself with the gaggle of people standing with their suitcases at the ready to accompany them back to civilization. And while he isn’t sure what they can do to help, he’s certain they have to do something, anything, rather than remain impartial. Reasoning that the chopper isn’t big enough for any additional passengers, Jake tries to talk Sam down arguing that “That’s not why we’re here, it’s not our problem. That’s not why we make these films. You’re losing sight of things. We can report these things when we get back, but it’s not up to us to decide what happens to these people.” Sam however counters with the conviction that “We should’ve done something.”
These reporters wrestle with notions of journalistic integrity, their individual interests as opposed to the common good, the same way the Parish nurse Wendy (Donna Biscoe) does her Hippocratic Oath when asked to use her medical knowledge to kill. By the very nature of the found footage format, which emulates and destroys the invisible wall between cameraman and subject, these newsmen can’t help but be drawn into events as first person participants. They’re forced to get involved despite themselves. Though Melbourne artist Sarah (Kate Lyn Sheil) states she doesn’t need the sort of mass communications the media promulgates to connect with other people, “it’s just another unhealthy addiction” humans lived without for thousands of years, Sam still finds himself repeatedly drawn to his cell phone, trying to stay in contact with his pregnant wife. Expecting his first child serves to sensitize this formerly detached reporter, so it’s impossible for him to remain coolly distanced any longer, turning his back and abandoning the situation cold turkey as Jake advises.
With his new paternal instincts having kicked in, making him feel more protective, humane and emotionally responsive, he is compelled to try and save the endangered Savannah. She could be Sam’s own unborn daughter so it’s no coincidence she brings out his new, more nurturing nature. His empathy proves catching, so that by the end real emotions are even being pulled out of jaded Jake who admits this to be the most scared he’s been in a long time. What we see is meant to be the result of the documentary they went to Eden Parish to shoot and apparently patched together after the fact. We’re privy as the film makers mull over the artistic process among themselves, debating the best way to shoot the footage and later cut what they’ve collected into the dramatic shape we’re viewing. But despite their momentous decision to take a hand in proceedings, at day’s end the journalists’ apparently disengaged handling of the material itself suggests they remain just as empirically observant in artistic approach as they were before.
The Sacrament seems low-rent and ragged and the pumped up moments of horror tend to cheapen the dramatic effects that should be most poignant, but considering how wrong a subject like this could have gone, it’s remarkable that West manages to make it as compelling as it is. But then unlike most other derivative found footage films of this type, he was shrewdly working from a pre-established historical incident that instantly conferred weight and meaning to proceedings. We’re easily able to fill in all the yawning gaps and missing pieces in the narrative based on what we already know of Jonestown going in. The movie’s success therefore lies in its ability to still make us fret, even when we know what’s going to happen next (and The Sacrament doesn’t bother veering far enough away from the historical record to genuinely surprise us at any point). Impressively enough, even when the film descends into familiar found footage cliché, West is still successful at manipulating audiences into caring for the Vice journalists. They never become quite as infuriatingly annoying as most horror film protagonists, found footage horror film protagonists in particular (though having the cameraman talk to himself in order to provide explication when we can’t quite make out what we’re seeing, becomes a bit too trite). Thinking they’re going to play white knight and rescue Caroline from the sect, they end up walking directly into the lion’s jaws. By film’s end they’ll be lucky if they can save themselves. Still we pull for them to make it out, even while scads of innocents are dropping like flies all around them, feeling that if only these three, as our level-headed proxies, can squirm out of this vise true believers so trustingly stepped into, then we too, as viewers, would’ve managed to find some way to escape the situation as well. Of course the true horror of Guyana was in its inexorability, an all-encompassing nightmare no one could ultimately escape from, not even those cult members who weren’t so far gone that they would willingly agree to kill themselves.
The new type of journalism these Vice magazine reporters work in, credited in the intro with producing “some of today’s most compelling and original content” is termed “immersionism,” and that’s the same perception this found footage film is seeking to equivocate. Director West uses the camera to completely immerse viewers in these events, wanting to make us feel as if we are there. The Sacrament’s disorienting immediacy gives us the uneasy feeling that we’re living in the moment and every second might be our last. Since the cinematography is supposed to have been done by the cameraman characters themselves there’s good reason why what we see frequently looks less like hardscrabble found footage than more professionally lensed mainstream filmmaking. Which doesn’t explain why the footage still looks so slick when amateur Caroline has hold of the camera, but why quibble? Producer Eli Roth described The Sacrament as West’s “first mainstream movie” and some shots lit by natural light, such as when a slight breeze catches Caroline as she administers the lethal injection to Patrick, resemble the work of Chris Menges in such ’80s movies as The Mission and A World Apart.
In addition, The Sacrament often departs from accepted dogma established for the found footage genre by cavalierly showing us B-roll full of angles, edits and reaction shots that one (or even two) cameras couldn’t possibly have captured. On occasion it even devilishly undermines our preconceptions about the overused format itself. At one point, after cameraman Jake has escaped the airport landing strip where his helicopter pilot (Christian O’Jore) was shot down, he dives behind a log to hide from armed pursuers, only to be, to our startled shock, almost instantly spotted. Yet when the militiamen approach the camera he’s concealed in the foliage, we realize he’s abandoned it and fled the scene without our knowledge, leaving us behind and at the mercy of these mad men. The Sacrament repeatedly undermines our expectations in this way, playing with the constant first person perspective we’ve grown accustomed to expect from other films of similar ilk. When the false veneer of Eden Parish is torn away to expose the seamy underbelly of the place for instance, journalist hero Sam’s camera falls over on its side, as if the world had been turned on its head, only to be recovered and pressed into service by the cult leaders themselves. By suddenly allowing events to be shot through their eyes, the director again gives viewers the impression that we’ve been placed in the hands of the enemy, leaving us in the same powerless, imprisoned state as Sam and the other, equally innocent parishioners in Father’s clutches. It’s the same feeling we get when Caroline commands her brother to “Stop f*cking filming me!,” rushing the camera as if directly assaulting us. The nature of photojournalism is to use the nosy camera to prod and poke into other people’s affairs, so when this dynamic is reversed, as it repeatedly is in The Sacrament, it devilishly enhances our mounting dread.