Ti West's divisive nature is pretty familiar to genre fans by now. Some folks are super on-board with the homage-laden aesthetic found in The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers; others have derided his slow-burn ("no-burn", ho-ho) approach, acknowledging the craft on display while questioning whether it's really in service of anything beyond pastiche. I have to admit I tended to fall in with the latter crowd. I can appreciate a good film forgery, and West's eye for reproducing a period aesthetic was probably more authentic than anything in Grindhouse or its spawn. But the end results have always left me cold. So I'm surprised and happy to report that The Sacrament is a legitimately gripping thriller, filled with more tension, dread, and genuine terror than any of his previous work.
Framed as an episode of Vice, the documentary series derived from the magazine of the same name, The Sacrament cleanly lays out its premise right up front; one of the magazine's photographers (Kentucker Audley) has received a letter from his sister (Amy Seimetz) inviting him to visit her at a notoriously secretive sober community, and the "immersion journalism" outlet sends along a correspondent (A.J. Bowen) and a cameraman (Joe Swanberg) to document the encounter. They arrive to discover a full-fledged cult under the spell of an enigmatic leader (Gene Jones), as well as some members who seem to be there against their will. The crew gently pokes and prods the mistrustful community for info, and the initial climate of unease gradually erupts into real danger and full-on horror.
If we're aiming to quickly sum up the corner West has turned here, it's that his other films have felt like put-ons; The Sacrament feels flat-out real. By mapping his story onto Vice's existing format (and nailing that format; I wouldn't be surprised to hear Vice half-jokingly trying to hire West for real), West's gift for mimicry finally serves instead of distracts. And using an existing brand as his framing device is such a clever move; found footage films tend to burn a lot of running time (and goodwill) establishing, re-establishing, and preserving the conceit, but here West's world-building is drag-and-drop, and it works. Additionally, in delivering the proceedings as a complete, edited piece of mass entertainment, the narrative is propulsive, almost urgent compared to West's previous work.
But West hasn't completely left the past behind: his story is practically a beat-for-beat retelling of the Jonestown Massacre that occurred in Guyana in 1978 (there's an excellent PBS doc about the event that would pair well with The Sacrament). West can't be faulted for mining that tragedy - not only did it make an indelible impression on the kids who watched it unfold on the news, but from the reactions of many of the Fantastic Fest audience, it's a story that, aside from the ubiquitous "drink the Kool-Aid" references, has fallen off the radar of much of West's current demographic. And the way West reaches into that recent past is another neat trick; though he uses a contemporary device to frame the story, West peppers his film with images and moments that evoke the post-Vietnam, pre-MTV era of television news, tapping into the seedy, anything-can-happen-on-TV vibe of the period.
Like a lot of the best films at Fantastic Fest, The Sacrament's secret weapon is its cast. A.J. Bowen's likable nature makes him an effective touchstone for the audience, and he and Swanberg have a natural rapport that serves as a release from the near-constant tone of dread. But when Gene Jones literally takes the stage as Father, the movie enters another level. It's a rare actor that can command an entire audience with just a close-up and a few words, but Jones triumphs. His folksy charm deftly shifts from magnetic to chilling, and back again, and the audience is as enthralled as Father's followers. His creepy magnetism recalls not only real-life cult leader Jim Jones, but also the underseen work of Raymond J. Barry in Interview With The Assassin.
I suspect the most negative noise you'll hear about The Sacrament will be from die-hard horror fans with abandonment issues, as the film seems to leave the genre behind. This is subjective; I once read the definition of horror films as "fantasies in which we experience terrors greater than we actually know." Using those parameters, The Sacrament might well be a horror film to some. Gruesome things happen, and it's a horrifying story, but to me it's an effective yet barely fictionalized retelling of true events. So call it what you want, but horror or not, The Sacrament is a big leap forward for its creator.