Ti West makes a found-footage Jonestown
Ti West makes a found-footage Jonestown isn’t an accurate description for his latest film, The Sacrament, but the characterization seems to fit. Yes, the film is made in the ever-popular found footage style and yes its subject matter is of a living community not unlike the one Jim Jones presided over.
In terms of found footage, The Sacrament lends more of its direction to The Blair Witch Project rather than Paranormal Activity. Its protagonists are investigative journalists of the Internet news group Vice – here played by a couple of frequent Ti West collaborators, AJ Bowen and Joe Swanberg. Bowen is Sam the reporter, while Swanberg is Jake, the one stuck lugging the equipment around, documenting everything on camera. The set-up to the story involves their photographer friend, Patrick (Kentucker Audley), receiving a letter from his sister, Caroline (Amy Seimetz), asking that he come visit her in the commune she currently resides. Together all three venture from the cushy comforts of New York City to a remote part of what appears to be an isolated section of South America. (The state of Georgia doubles for the continent to surprising effect.)
Eden Parish is the commune, a sprawling agricultural community comprised of more than one hundred residents, surrounded by armed guards. Such a sight – brandishing guns on visitors to the parish – raises suspicion by Sam, him sensing there’s more going on than it just being a hospitable community. But to his surprise, the commune is just that. Then, following the seesaw action of interviewing some of the residents, Sam gets a sit-down interview with the man that runs the parish: a man known simply as “Father.”
If The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers showed West could make classicist horror from the ‘80s and ‘90s school, The Sacrament is a complete 180-degree switch with its found-footage aesthetic. But unlike most movies shot this way, West’s film works to a large degree because he takes the time to establish the characters and highlight each one’s personality. Far too often in horror the characters are indecipherable or fall into specific “token” categories. Plus, when the camera is firmly planted on you, as it is on AJ Bowen most of the time, it’s hard to not put yourself in the protagonist’s shoes. As far as his cameraman goes, Joe Swanberg has the difficult task of being mostly heard and rarely seen on camera. Such a style gives way to two types of acting performances, that being on camera and off camera.
When it comes to films shot with a found footage style I have tried my best to refrain from the actuality. Ideas like the life of a camera battery tend to leap to mind, as does the placement of the cameras to document the story. It goes without saying that there are moments in The Sacrament where West incorporates a mysterious camera that you know isn’t being handled by either AJ or Joe. This may take some out of the picture entirely, but by then I was fully invested with the story that I just let it be.
While horror fans may be able to recognize the stars, having recently seen them in You’re Next, the true standout performance belongs to Gene Jones as Father. West revealed in a post-Q&A session after the US premiere that casting Jones in the role came after seeing a brief scene of the actor in an episode of Louie playing a pharmacist. His diction and line delivery is what caught his hear and it shows in his performance. Apparently the extended interview segment between Father and Sam was done in a single take and lasted 17 minutes. Jones didn’t miss a line.
Besides the actor’s brilliant elocution, which carries a Southern Hospitality brogue, Father is also identifiable by his clothing. They say clothing makes the man, and with certain movie characters their attire is almost as important as their personality. Dressed in an all-white shirt and matching khaki pants, completing the getup with sunglasses, it’s easy to see what character West wanted to achieve. Anyone who knows anything about Jonestown and how Jim Jones dressed, seeing Father in this respect serves as a clue as to what might happen in the closing minutes.
Knowing the eventual outcome makes The Sacrament seem less like a horror movie; it carries with it more psychological dread than outright terror. This sense of dread permeates due to West’s direction, which involves a very slow burn that intensifies after the climactic sit-down interview.
I’m sure The Sacrament will have a dissenting view that has nothing to due with Ti West’s decision to go the found-footage route and more to do with calling attention to religious fanaticism and cults, though not outright indicating Eden Parish as being one. Not like it’s a big secret.
In spite of West’s decision to go the found-footage route, the approach worked for this reviewer. The Sacrament is the director at his most audacious, with a subject that may not necessarily add to his growing cult following. Which is funny when you think about it.
Writer/Director: Ti West
Notable Cast: AJ Bowen, Joe Swanberg, Amy Seimetz, Gene Jones, Kentucker Audley
Tags: Fantastic Fest, Fantastic Fest 2013, The Blair Witch Project, Ti West