Right from the opening of The Sacrament, West bucks all trends of the found-footage horror subgenre by acknowledging how they all end. The found-footage genre had grown stale by the time even Paranormal Activity 2. West, as he has continually shown in his filmography, understands the genre stereotypes and tropes and how to deviate from and recreate them. In the found footage genre, there is always a certainty that everyone in this film will die, thus allowing the footage to be “found”. West begins the film by communicating directly that this is no found-footage. This footage has been cut and edited by his VICE magazine videographers, there is music playing over the film and title cards indicating that this footage was brought back by the same people who went in. By declaring direct authorship over the documentary footage, West distances the film from all other found footage films I’ve seen.
West’s films always operate not on the direct confirmation that something is wrong, but on the creeping possibilities that something might be wrong. The babysitting job in The House of the Devil might be much more nefarious than we think, this about-to-close hotel in The Innkeepers might be haunted. Even with eventual confirmation of supernatural elements towards the ends of those films, they were still terrifying because of how West was dodging audience expectations for the previous runtime. In The Sacrament, the film operates on the same creeping doubts but rather than heading into supernatural territory when you think it might, it grounds itself in the real world. In the film, a group of VICE reporters set out to document a commune in an unnamed country when their friend receives a note from his estranged sister asking for him to come visit. With a mounting sense of unease, West sees that sometimes humanity is far more terrifying than anything supernatural.
West cast known names (at least in the independent film world) with Joe Swanberg, AJ Bowen, Amy Seimetz and Kate Lyn Sheil. With most of the residents though there is an assuring non-actor feel to their performances. They don’t feel like characters, they feel like people. This really lends itself to not only the realism at play but in the horror of what follows. I’d be interested to know to what degree if any were there non-actors on this film.
In film there’s an immediate distrust with certain assurances like “We don’t have anything to hide.” But there is something about the motherly way Amy Seimetz, in the role of the sister Caroline, delivers these falsities that you almost believe them. Joe Swanberg and AJ Bowen act as vessels for the audience as the two key reporters on this expedition. With each of them there is either more contrived backstory to get us to root for them or simply not enough. Sam (Bowen) has a baby on the way in 2 months, and in the case of Jake (Swanberg) we know practically nothing about him. These are problems in character creation, but both performers elevate their characters by committing to the in-the-moment feel this film needs.
I’ve read plenty of valid negative reviews for the film, but it seems the thing we can all agree on is the fantastic performance from Gene Jones (the unlucky(?) gas station attendant in No Country for Old Men) as the “Father” of Eden Parish. At first he only appears in the distance as his voice booms over loudspeakers at Eden Parish, creating an immediate exalted presentation of him. This is made all the more heightened when he finally appears at the half hour mark of the film for an interview with our reporters. He dresses like a foreign dictator, charms with his southern hospitality and talks with a good ole boy drawl. Jones is absolutely magnetic in his screen presence and dialogue delivery.
The way Father deflects all the questions that Sam throws at him by playing to his audience and flipping it back on the reporters is calculative and Jones makes it all seem so easily achieved. He milks every ounce of his time in the interview to reinforce his authority over his congregation. At certain points you think he might be right. There’s a poignant race relation statement West brings up when Father asks Sam a simple question. I found myself wanting to watch a baseball game with this guy but simultaneously uncomfortable at the thought of being alone in a room with him.
The score by Tyler Bates and sound design by Graham Reznick combine for a lurking presence throughout. It accents the unease of the film without disrupting the documentary feel of it. The film does begin to crumble after scrutiny on some of the documentary logic during the film. At various points in the film it gives off the impression of using more cameras than the reporters have. To West’s credit though, this didn’t even occur to me while I was watching the film due to the gripping atmosphere and pacing.
There is plenty to debate about this film. Does it go too far in the gratuity of the 3rdact? Does it get too uncomfortably close in the obvious inspiration from The Jonestown Massacre? Unfortunately it will take more time to even-handedly analyze these aspects of the film. What I do know as I write this is that this is another effective entry into West’s filmography, further establishing him as the most authentic voice in horror today.