Which is why it has always felt incredibly reductive to me when people dismiss films that draw inspiration from real life events on the grounds that “they already know the ending.” What movies do you not know the ending to? And for that matter, which movies built solely around twist endings are actually good?
When The Sacrament made its festival debut some months ago it was very well received, but there was a smattering of talk from a vocal minority that the film “doesn’t add much” to its Jonestown inspired depiction of a cult (this isn’t a note for note retelling – though it does recreate a surprising amount of that tragic event). Finally having seen the movie, I’d argue that it wouldn’t matter if The Sacrament added much to the tale as long as it was good (it is). I’d also argue that it in fact does add a crucial contextual element that makes the whole thing more worthwhile than even its early praise would indicate.
That element? The assertion that these kinds of acts aren’t mass suicides, but mass homicides. It’s not an original notion on my part. Writer/director Ti West and star AJ Bowen have been pretty vocal about this. But watching The Sacrament with that in mind really made me appreciate the film’s rather strict adherence to the details of the Jonestown event. Instead of exploiting the tragedy for genre fodder, it feels like the film provides a voice for the hundreds of people who lost their lives on that day. It defuses the “drinking the Kool-Aid” punchline and makes you consider the fact that these people were trapped in an untenable situation with no escape. Sure, the act of lifting a cup of poison to your lips is, neurologically speaking, a conscious decision. But when there’s a gun to your head and there’s miles and miles between you and any recognizable civilization, is it really a choice?
Beyond this added context, it doesn’t hurt that The Sacrament is probably the best film Ti West has made to date. It’s surprisingly cinematic (refuting the aesthetic “out” given by the docu-drama style) and undeniably suspenseful. The cast is impressive. Bowen is freed from the amiable villain angle explored by his some of his more recent work and it turns out he can play decent and conflicted just as well. Amy Seimetz really sells the initial allure of these communities as Caroline, a recovering addict who has found what she thinks is salvation in the confines of Eden Parish. Joe Swanberg and Kentucker Audley deliver solid supporting turns. Of course, no cult is complete without a charismatic leader and Gene Jones (ironically named) knocks it out of the park as “Father” – a character so sufficiently manipulative and malevolent you don’t think twice when his disciples commence his horrific bidding.
If this sounds like a flat out rave, it’s worth noting that some minor elements of The Sacrament nagged me. I’m increasingly at odds with the POV conceit in feature length movies, and when Jones says to Seimetz, “film this, it’s important” I wished that the film had been pitched and greenlit six months later, when such things were more evidently on the wane. It rings a bit false within the context of Father’s distrust of everything media. Still, The Sacrament is more than strong enough to overcome this and a few other related hiccups.
It’s also worth noting that West delivers a hell of a third act, which is something of a reversal for those who felt that House Of The Devil and The Innkeepers were a bit long on slow and short on burn. He’s always been great at atmosphere (same case here), but The Sacrament pays off its escalation of dread with an extended sequence of terror at the end of the film. It’s also the point where the synergy between West’s directing and editing is most evident. It’s typically not advisable for directors to be the sole editor on their own work but West makes a case for the exception.
The Sacrament hits iTunes/VOD/On Demand on May 1st before a theatrical release on June 6th.