There’s a delicious moment in Adam Wingard’s darkly comic home invasion thriller You’re Next when, during a dinner fraught with tension and bickering, the smug, pretentious, boorish boyfriend of youngest sibling Amy Seimetz is suddenly killed by a crossbow bolt to the head prompting wild cheers from horror geeks in the audience. The smug boyfriend is played by Ti West, the marmite-flavoured writer/director of The House Of The Devil and The Innkeepers, and most horror fans would gladly see him take a crossbow bolt to the skull any day of the week ending in Y.

Sticking with the tired found footage style of his pedestrian contribution to mumblegore horror anthology V/H/S, West cheapens the real-life tragedy of the Jonestown Massacre with The Sacrament, a faux-documentary that feels like the half-remembered recollection of the far superior TV movie of that atrocity related to you by some elaborately animated facial hair you bumped into in SXSW’s audience of vacuous hipsters.

When fashion photographer Patrick (Kentucker Audley) receives a troubling message from off-the-rails little sister Caroline (mumblecore princess Amy Seimetz) saying she’s cleaned up her act and joined a religious cult, he travels to the cult’s Central American commune, Eden Parish, to check up on her, best buds and hipster twat documentarians Sam (AJ Bowen) and Jake (Joe Swanberg) tagging along to shoot a documentary/exposé of the group for Vice magazine.

On the surface, both Caroline and the community seem happy, content to live a simple, if austere, peasant lifestyle under the ever watchful direction of the genial Father (Gene Jones), a too-good-to-be-true Southern Baptist preacher man. But as the filmmakers dig a little deeper, they uncover a more sinister side to Eden Parish and before you can scream “DON’T DRINK THE KOOL-AID!!!” events spiral into violence and tragedy.

Perhaps The Sacrament’s greatest crime is one of a failure of imagination. While he breaks no new ground with the film, West’s modest, no-frills, low-key approach to filmmaking compliments the found footage style and for the first half of the film, even as the tension builds through the layering of tiny clues, The Sacrament edges towards being a more interesting film with it’s broadly sympathetic treatment of the cult and it’s tropical idyll, almost daring to suggest that the commune, with it’s free healthcare and focus on sustainable, eco-friendly farming may represent an attractive and viable alternative lifestyle to Western industrialised society, that the harmonious, multiethnic commune may in fact represent a purer, idealised vision of America and it’s values. A smarter film would have allowed the filmmaker protagonists to be seduced by the community, to be tempted to renounce their hipster lives in New York in favour of the simplicity of the cult.

Unfortunately The Sacrament isn’t that kind of film and Ti West isn’t that kind of filmmaker so along waddles Gene Jones looking like the bastard son of John Goodman and Jabba the Hutt as the slow-drawling, sinister Father, an Elmer Gantry-style snake-oil salesman who’s gone a bit Colonel Kurtz and rules the commune as his own personal kingdom, using his power and position to indulge his more lascivious appetites, an idol with feet of clay that the film crew can expose. Rather than just ordinary people rationally seeking a less toxic alternative to the modern rat race, the cultists reveal themselves to be swivel-eyed loons and from this point on the film becomes just another smug, hipster rant warning about the evils of religion as it self-destructs, Father setting in motion his own personal apocalypse for little real reason other than 1) religious leaders are bad and 2) Ti West vaguely remembers seeing Powers Boothe play Jim Jones in a TV movie as a kid and it really scared the bejeezus out of him. Cue hymn-singing parents forcing their kids to drink poison while gun-toting henchman go house to house executing anyone who’s not onboard the suicide express.

The performances from the cast of mumblecore regulars are mostly decent with AJ Bowen and Joe Swanberg succeeding in the impossible task of making Vice journalists likeable protagonists while Seimetz is wonderful and terrifying as the true believer who first tries to convert and then to murder our heroes. Jones though is just a vaguely threatening fat man and fails to convince as the messianic cult leader, a problem that’s indicative of the film as a whole.

Far from the corpulent demagogue of The Sacrament, Jim Jones was a handsome, intelligent, immensely charismatic figure, able to quote Gandhi, Christ and Mao in the same breath, able to appeal to America’s disenfranchised black, urban poor and to it’s white, successful, petit bourgeois middle class, a man, arguably, obsessed with social, political and religious freedom. If you listen to the Kurtz-like communiqués he issued from the jungle today (widely sampled by musicians like Alabama 3), he sounds…almost rational, like he may have had a point, like a politically engaged leader frustrated by the iniquities inherent in our society. The film never attempts to ask, let alone answer, what made him tick? What compelled over 1000 people to follow him to the jungle and die with him? What is wrong with society that it drives decent, intelligent people to seek out these extreme, alternative, revolutionary lifestyles espoused by modern day prophets and charlatans? In restaging Jonestown for cheap exploitation thrills, West fails to actually engage with the tragedy, delivering instead a slick exercise in sustained dread that ultimately feels hollow and cynical. It’s hard to deny West’s talent but The Sacrament is an infuriating film that makes you want to shoot him in the head with a crossbow bolt.


VERDICT: [rating=2]

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