Sunday 8 June 2014

The Sacrament (US 2013: Dir Ti West)

Oh dear. After the slowburn delights of Ti West's earlier films, The Sacrament, with its bigger budget and more ambitious sweep, is, I must confess, a huge disappointment.

West deploys the done to death 'found footage' approach (although more accurately as a friend of mine calls it the 'first person' filmmaking style) to tell a story of a group of edgy TV documentary makers heading out to a remote jungle location to track down the missing sister of one of their party and (of course) document the whole thing. When they eventually find her she's living as part of a blissed out community called 'Eden Parish', presided over by 'The Father', an enigmatic figurehead who has gathered his flock to him to create a seemingly idlyllic life free of the constraints of capitalism and politics. Sound familiar?

People of a certain age may recognise this setup as sounding rather like the People's Temple which Jim Jones founded in Guyana back in the 1970s, before encouraging all 910 of the community's occupants to kill themselves by drinking cyanide laced Kool-Aid. And they'd be right. Without giving the plot away, The Sacrament pretty much re-tells this story - ok, I probably have. Sorry. 'The Father' even looks a lot like Jones and although the names have been changed, once the community's overweight leader hoves into view (complete with Jones-esque glasses) it's fairly obvious how this is going to turn out.

The presence of Eli Roth in the production of course ensures that any scenes of death are as protracted and exploitative as possible (you want to see a mother slit the throat of her own daughter before being shot at point blank range? Step this way). The performances, as in all of West's films, are very good, particularly Gene Jones as 'The Father' and Amy Seimetz as Caroline, the missing sister (and who was one of the few good things about Upstream Colour). But as the film is set in the present day, why is it retelling a story of events that took place in 1978? Did West think that the majority of his audience wouldn't know about Jim Jones, leaving him free to rip the story off? And why did the (presumably culturally clued up) filmmakers, when they stumble across the community and its leader in the first place, not immediately make a comparison to Jonestown, or indeed other cults they would have been familiar with like the Branch Davidians lead by David Koresh?

One of the film's key limitations, and annoyances, is the first person camera work. West gets around the traditional shaky cam issues by having the footage filmed by a proper documentary crew, hence the cinematic quality of what we're looking at. But in the second half of the movie the audience is left to wonder why the crew haven't abandoned their cameras when they're forced to make a run for it - a standard problem for a film shot in this way, and one that I thought West might solve.

So The Sacrament, while well made, convincingly acted, and never boring, is just a bit pointless, and a massive let down from a film maker who has previously been consistently exciting in his output. Let's hope this is just a blip on his CV.

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