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Saturday, February 22, 2014

THE SACRAMENT Review: Film Comment Selects

Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures
2014, 95 minutes
Rated R for disturbing violent content including bloody images, language and brief drug use

Review by Joshua Handler

The Sacrament showed as part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center's Film Comments Selects series.  The film will be released on May 1 on VOD and on June 6 in theaters.  

Ti West's latest The Sacrament, is a horrifically disturbing film based on the Jonestown Massacre of 1978.  It was produced by Eli Roth (The Green InfernoHostel) and is extremely well-made, tense, and well-acted.  The film stars a group of fantastic actors including Amy Seimetz (Upstream Color, You're Next), Joe Swanberg (You're Next, director of Drinking Buddies), A.J. Bowen (You're Next, The House of the Devil), Kentucker Audley (Sun Don't Shine, V/H/S), and Gene Jones, as the Tim Jones figure, Father.  West was at the Film Society of Lincoln Center for a post-screening Q&A.

The Sacrament tells the story of three VICE Magazine journalists, Sam, Jake, and Patrick (Bowen, Swanberg, and Audley, respectively) who go to write a story on a group of Americans who left to live at Eden Parish, a secluded area in another country after receiving a troubling letter from Patrick's sister, Caroline, (Seimetz).

What distinguishes The Sacrament from other films of its kind is its commitment to realism.  There's very little that's unrealistic in The Sacrament, and that makes the film all the more chilling.  One example of this is a particularly disturbing, though non-gory, death scene shown in real time with a stationary camera.  That is far more ghastly than anything the torture-porn films could dream up.

The first half of The Sacrament is truly tense.  From the outset, you know something is wrong.  West keeps increasing the tension little by little through small, yet odd occurrences - little hints.  These hints are placed carefully throughout to create a sense of mounting dread.

As mentioned, the acting from all is strong, but it is the performance of Gene Jones as Father that stands out.  Jones' first appearance is during a scene in which Sam interviews Father.  Jones performs with a charisma and slightly demented charm, creating a menacing atmosphere that hangs over the film even when he's offscreen.  This interview scene was 12 pages long and was to be shot in one night (12 pages of script is an enormous amount to shoot in one night).  The crew was anticipating a long night shoot, said West, until Jones came out for his scene and performed the entire thing in 17 minutes without missing a line.

As great as the first three-quarters of The Sacrament are, it loses a bit of steam at the very end.  A final plot point is contrived and alters the entire outcome of the film (you'll know what I mean when you see it).  It also takes some of the realism out of the film, which doesn't ruin the film's impact, but certainly lessens it.  For a film that rides on final impact, this is a blow.  Additionally, there are some moments of humor that work and some that don't because they feel out of place and lighten up the serious tone in distracting ways.

West, as mentioned, was at the Film Society of Lincoln Center for a Q&A.  During the discussion, he said it's debatable whether The Sacrament is "a horror film or just horrific."  I'd argue that it isn't a horror film.  There's nothing really scary about it.  It's simply a very eerie drama.

When asked about his decision to work with the same team for every movie, West said his cast/crew is like a "theatre troupe".  They make movies together because they like it.  They are fortunate to be making movie after movie so there's no reason to stop, said West.  "Casting is 85% of directing," said West.  This shows the immense amount of faith West puts into his cast and it shows.  They aren't just pawns in his demented game.  The actors portray three-dimensional characters who feel real and drive much of the movie.

Overall, The Sacrament is well worth viewing for its strong direction and performances and its inherently disturbing story.  West is clearly beginning to master his craft, realizing that tension is what drives horror films and thrillers, not gore.  I'd highly recommend giving this one a watch.

(a very high) 3/4

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