First of all, I have an utterly biased opinion of this subject matter. I actually knew very little about this picture going into it, which was only what I’d read on the back cover of the dvd itself and that the movie was directed by Ti West and produced by Eli Roth. Now, having West and Roth’s names attached to it was incentive enough for me. I liked House of the Devil, and the Innkeepers (despite its shortcomings), and I like a lot of Roth’s work as well; especially Cabin Fever, Inglorious Basterds, and the cringe-worthy dialogue trip known as Hemlock Grove. But, the plot synopsis of The Sacrament smacked of Jonestown inspired design, which is what really had me interested. As morbid as it may be, I am incredibly fascinated by what happened at Jonestown, and find cult activity like it to be some of the most harrowing stuff in the world. In fact, what’s frightening about these events is that they seem so probable. Anyone with an ounce of empathy can see why movements like Heaven’s Gate or the People’s Temple might seem tempting to those who have nothing to live for, or no means of supporting themselves. So, even though critics have come down on West for keeping his story too close to truth, I think he’s sort of struck gold with his re-telling of this iconic cult tragedy. Indeed, human beings are far more frightening that fiction.
We could draw parallels between The Sacrament and the real events of Jonestown all day long. I’ll just keep it at this: the basic outline of the plot pretty much coincides exactly with what happened when California Senator Leo Ryan, his group of journalists, and a few family members of residents of Jonestown flew in for a visit. The liberties that are taken lie within the individual characters themselves. Senator Ryan is replaced with Vice journalist Sam (AJ Bowen). We also see characters who, to my knowledge, do not directly refer to the lives of any real people. Most notably, the young mute girl, Savannah. We also see a lot of conjectures made regarding what happens once the big event starts to go down. There is no real footage of those events. Only audio recordings and photos of the aftermath. Any other differences are pretty much minor or debatable. For example, I’ve always read that the flavor-aid at Jonestown was grape, in The Sacrament they drink a red drink. I have also read that Jim Jones did not shoot himself, but that he asked others to do it for him, while “father” of The Sacrament does his own dirty work. As I said, these differences are minor. So, let’s move on, shall we?
If we put aside the truth behind this tale (difficult), it seems to me that there is a lot to praise in The Sacrament. The opening exposition is only a touch long, and once we get to meet father himself, the wait seems to have been worth it. The main man himself, mildly demonic in appearance behind his aviator sunglasses, is played by Gene Jones, and he really nails this performance. His delivery has that perfect edge, in which he manages to make father seem like a well meaning guy, but underneath that father also seriously gives us the wiggins. This is especially true during the scene in which we see Sam finally get his interview with father, in front of the whole parish, on stage, with only a stark wooden cross between them. Father skirts around all of Sam’s questions, of course, but what’s disturbing here is that he speaks not with insanity, but with sense. It would be entirely too easy to fall in line with father’s way of thinking. He speaks passionately about how damaged the modern world is, and how it’s poisoned with violence, greed, jealously, and racism. Who can argue with that? In fact, it really does seem like the residents of Eden Parish have a good thing going. That is, until the community joins hands to mumble out an incantationous hymn, which repeats over and over “Jesus fix me…”
I also have to give Ti West a big pat on the back for using found footage (I use that term loosely here) in the right way. The journalists do not talk to “us”, and there is not an excessive amount of shots of grass. Instead, the footage feels steady and edited, as if we’re seeing the completed piece that Vice put together. And, there is footage that is clearly not being filmed by Vice. This is still a movie. It merely uses the journalism as its framework, not as its crutch. Kudos, for real.
I guess I just have to wonder if I would like this movie if I didn’t know anything about Jonestown. I have a sneaking suspicion that younger viewers may be left feeling a little unfulfilled at the end, because nothing paranormal or gory happenes. Still, if you can’t get uncomfortable at the notion of mass brainwashing and suicide, then you might want to question your humanity.