Thursday, October 2, 2014

The Sacrament

* spoilers *

Patrick, fashion photographer, receives a letter from his drug addict sister Caroline that she has found utopia in South America with a drug and alcohol free religious group that has sold all their belongings to set up a commune there. Patrick's co-workers, Sam and Jake, who work for Vice, want to do a story on the group and go with him to document and report about the trip. When they arrive, things are less than hospitable when men with machine guns stop them and demand a donation. Caroline arrives, they are let in, and everything seems idyllic. Everyone they talk to loves the place and has story after story about how they were saved and how it's the most perfect place ever. A party is thrown in their honor where they will get to interview Father, the leader of the group, and just enjoy themselves for the night. The interview doesn't go as planned as Father is a charismatic, talkative man who can talk around any question they ask. Sam is handed a note that says "Help us" at the party and they know everything isn't as wonderful as it seems.

I had basically written off Ti West as a horrible director because I've hated pretty much everything he's done up to this point except Cabin Fever 2, which he wanted to remove his name from. I decided to give him one last chance and I'm glad I did. I didn't realize going into it, but the film is a fictionalized retelling of the Jonestown massacre where a religious cult committed mass murder/suicide with poisoned Kool-Aid after moving to South America to flee "persecution." I have heard vague accounts of the event, but no real specifics. The film does a great job of presenting the story pretty accurately with an artistic flair without filling in all the gaps for the audience. For instance, the inhabitants talked about the abuse that would be administered should any of them break the rules or go against Father, but it isn't seen and only a little of the aftermath is shown. Anything not explicitly explained in the film can be researched and discovered for oneself since it's a pretty well documented event. The film starts normally enough, but as the film goes on, suspense and tension is built perfectly toward the grisly resolution. Ti West has always been good at building suspense, but has failed to make the resolution worthy of the build up until now.

I find religious cults to be particularly frightening because of how easy it is to manipulate religion to an agenda and manipulate people who are down and out to follow it. Father is a fascinating character and Gene Jones gives the best performance of the film. The scariest thing about him is how jovial and sincerely nice he appears. His likability and charisma are what draw people to him in the first place. Ti West wanted to make the character portrayed as genuine and well meaning, but his paranoia drove him to evil. The second most frightening thing about him is his ability to manipulate. He convinced a huge group of people to give up all their earthly belongings, give him all their money, move out to South America, and build Eden Parish. Then he convinced the majority of them to kill themselves, their children, and the dissenters. He also blamed the deaths of his people on the Vice crew, insisting to the end that it wasn't his fault and it was the only way out. I've listened to part of the tapes recorded by Jim Jones, the real life Father, and Gene Jones captured him perfectly.

The film is in found footage style, but doesn't overdo the shaky cam effect or forgo having a satisfying ending as many of them do. The style makes sense with the story. My only gripe with the film is that the blood looks too orange and very fake. It seems a few people take offense to fictionalizing a real life event, but I disagree. A horrific event like this is morbidly fascinating and a film like this gives us the opportunity to experience a situation like it safely while exploring how it could happen and the motivations of the people involved. I think it's more offensive to turn victims of the Chernobyl disaster into monsters like Chernobyl Diaries or turn the innocent victims of the Salem witch trials into actual witches deserving of execution in The Conjuring.

My rating: 9/10 fishmuffins

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