Viking Night: Stanley Film Festival II Part II
Stanley Night Fever, 2014 Edition
By Bruce Hall
April 30, 2014
Even before penning V/H/S, Ti West had already drummed up quite a bit of good will for himself. For better or worse, he remains best known as director of The House of the Devil, 2009’s breakthrough babysitter death-flick/nostalgia trip. It won the kind of broad critical (if not financial) acclaim that gives a man at least a little say in the things he gets to do next. So being the uncompromising men they are, West and producer Eli Roth have joined forces to spend what remains of that creative capital on The Sacrament. West himself described this film as "left of center", implying it was made for his own satisfaction rather than that of any specific audience.
That's good to know, because you won't get far into the film before you'll find yourself asking: "Who the hell was supposed to enjoy this?"
The Sacrament dances on the fringe of several recent trends/gimmicks, depending on your point of view. We can't exactly call it a "found footage" movie, for reasons I can't specify without spoiling a super fun final act. In some ways it succeeds as a faux documentary, but the film never truly commits to this. Frequent transitions between first and third person are often inelegant; leaving you less worried about what’s happening on screen than in how you’re meant to perceive it. There’s also a “ripped from the headlines” vibe to The Sacrament, as the story takes its inspiration from the 1978 Jonestown Massacre. So when I say “headlines”, I mean “something that happened back when humans still used paper”.
But while elements of real life tragedy underpin the narrative, the real story is about Sam (AJ Bowen) and Patrick (Kentucker Audley), documentary filmmakers for a fringe news organization called Vice (which actually exists). It just so happens that in an incredible instance of pure journalistic gold, Patrick’s troubled sister has fallen in with a secret religious cult in the remote jungle of an unspecified South American country. She’s reached out to Patrick, who’s now eager to travel to the Republic of Madness and bring his sister back. Aware that this is exactly the kind of story they usually cover, Sam makes the trip as well, bringing along Jake the Cameraman (Joe Swanberg) to document this macabre double feature for posterity.
When they arrive at the compound, they’re greeted by gun toting mercenaries. Patrick’s sister Caroline (Amy Seimetz) appears and explains that the leader of this pacifist wonderland - a man they call “Father” (Gene Jones) - has many enemies. Later, while Patrick reacquaints himself with his sister, Sam and Jake interview a handful of colonists. They discover the place is called “Eden Parish” and that it’s like one of those Star Trek episodes where the “perfect society” turns out to be run by an evil supercomputer that doesn’t know the difference between “murder” and “love”. This is probably why, when Sam finally meets Father, the man turns out to be much more than just an enigmatic preacher. And when a desperate mother approaches the journalists for help, Father’s Big Secret slowly begins to unravel.
And of course, the tension brings out each character’s worst flaws. Sam seems more interested in an easy scoop than a good story. Patrick just wants his sister back. Jake looks like Mark Wahlberg.