Why would a Christian commune, dedicated to the creation of a Heaven on Earth in homage to the pacifist principles of Jesus Christ, require armed guards? As we discover during the creepy slow burn of Ti West‘s new thriller The Sacrament, the name of the game in Eden Parish is secrecy, which, as with all religious cults, is what keeps them powerful. Indoctrination, coercion, exploitation, deception and brainwashing are kind of helpful too. Patrick (Kentucker Audley), whose sister Caroline (Amy Seimetz), has fallen in with the cult, journeys to an undisclosed island on foreign soil to investigate her whereabouts and wellbeing, accompanied by Sam (AJ Bowen) and Jake (Joe Swanberg), two pals/colleagues from a major online multimedia news outlet.
Armed only with cameras, the three men are initially freaked out by the surly and burly machine-gun-toting guards who guide them into the compound. But as they explore the inner workings of the camp – populated with those like Caroline who lost their way in the world through various addictions and were guided back to what appears to be a clean and green life – it begins to seem like Eden Parish is not without merit.
The silver lining, however, is just that. Tranquility in the parish is only skin deep. As they slowly begin to notice an alarming number of aberrations, they fear for their own lives as well as those of the people who are not quite fitting in with the extremist views of the charismatic cult leader, Father (Gene Jones). In addition to being charming, persuasive and highly intelligent, Father, an oft-cool-shades-adorned fleshy orator with definite fascist undertones, is a downright creep – a skillfully malevolent manipulator and exploiter.
This is one chilling, scary-ass movie that grabs you very early in the proceedings and doesn’t let up, steadily mounting in its intensity until a climax that will have you begging for mercy. There are no cheap shocks and the violence is always muted, roiling just below the surface. I doubt Mr West is a student of the late, great Val Lewton (most young contemporary filmmakers have yet to make his acquaintance), but if he is, I would not be surprised, and if he isn’t, he should be, since he still has a few tricks to learn from a real master. (God knows, Scorsese, Friedkin and many other greats continue to acknowledge their debt to Lewton.) With this film and his previous effort, the fun and scary paranormal thriller The Innkeepers, West is proving to be a potential master of finding chills, thrills and evil in dark, yet unlikely corners, and, like Lewton, his genre indulgences are so much more than the simple, but effective, narrative coat hangers on which he drapes his explorations of humanity.
One element doesn’t quite hold up in the movie: there are inconsistencies with respect to the film within the film – the documentary that the trio is making on Eden Parish. Most of the time, the sheer force of West’s fine direction carries us along, but occasionally, we’re ripped out of the proceedings by some of the intrusive title cards that remind us we’re watching a finished product that’s already gone viral. It occasionally takes us a bit of time to get back into the otherwise riveting trajectory of the tale. It also suggests that someone will escape the evil, though in fairness, we’re never sure who and just how many are getting out.
This is a bit of a drag, because the movie has a kind of paranoia-infused 70s sensibility that suggests we might be cascading into a completely hope-bereft conclusion. That we’re treated to a tiny taste of hope so early and so consistently doesn’t quite fit the form. I even wondered if, at any point during the post-production process, West and his team tried to mute the film-within-the-film stuff, toss the title cards and use the actions of the characters and the more obvious doc-styled footage ‘naturally’ within the narrative, rather than the manner in which they are employed. Part of me thinks, based upon the coverage that appears on screen, that this might have been a worthy pursuit. Then again, I wasn’t sitting in the fucking edit suite, so what the fuck do I know? Maybe it was a consideration and didn’t work, but I do hate to think it wasn’t at least tried.
My only other quarrel with the picture is that it’s full of babes and there’s a fair bit of talk and suggestion of boink-o-rama activity in Eden Parish. No offence, but the issue of sex within the compound is brought up, and that we get nary a flash of said activity is a bit like introducing a loaded gun into a scene and not firing it. Let’s not forget the immortal nude harvest dance in the original 1970s The Wicker Man – totally creepy and hubba-hubba-sexy.
But, I digress.
Happily, the performances from all the leads in The Sacrament are top of the line, and it’s to West’s undying credit that the picture features the finest use of extras and background performers I’ve seen in any recent movie. If, however, there is anything resembling justice, Jesus and/or the God of Abraham on Planet Hollywood, Gene Jones as Father deserves as many supporting actor accolades as it is possible to bestow upon someone, including an Oscar nomination. This is no chew-the-scenery nonsense that so many more established stars will barf up when they play a villain: Jones is malevolence-incarnate because his performance is brilliantly muted. The camera loves the guy, and it’s impossible to take your eyes off him whenever he’s on screen. This is not just the hallmark of any charismatic cult leader; he brings a depth of intelligence and understanding to the character that makes us (almost) like him. He also infuses the performance with an element of tragedy. Father is no mere manipulator, but rather, a man who has come to believe so strongly in his beliefs that he’s managed to convince even himself that his might is right. It’s that very element of self-faith and self-love that Jones steadfastly nails to a cross that shows us why such individuals are alternately on top of the world just as clearly as they’re on a fast track to destruction.
You might remember Gene Jones from the Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men during the famous coin-toss scene, which, for me, was the performance in that movie that set the bar and proved the old adage: ‘There are no small parts…’ Here, though, West has given Gene Jones the role of a lifetime. I sincerely hope Jones’s work in The Sacrament is recognized, acknowledged and propulsive. The world needs more character actors of his caliber and I demand that he become as gloriously ubiquitous as Edward Arnold, Lionel Barrymore, Walter Huston, Charles Durning, Ned Beatty, Hume Cronyn, Paul Giamatti and every other great actor who more than propped up their fair share of pictures, but also created a myriad of living, breathing human beings who somehow, with their very appearance, gave their own work and that of everyone else a bit of that old silver screen immortality.
All in all, The Sacrament is a terrific little thriller and I’m looking forward to seeing it again. Maybe that will be enough to change my curmudgeonly nattering about the film-within-the-film elements and the lack of sex. Probably not, but it won’t matter. I like the picture – a lot!!!