Review: Ti West’s creepy ‘The Sacrament’ plunges viewers into the heart of a suicide cult

TORONTO – By the time I publish this review, there’s a strong chance Magnolia will have closed their deal to pick up Ti West’s new film “The Sacrament” for release, and if they do, I think that’s a great match for the release model that they seem to be perfecting over there.

It would be unfair and reductive to simply call “The Sacrament” a horror film. Sure, Ti has made a name for himself as a master of the slow-burn with “The House Of The Devil” and “The Innkeepers,” but even those films are totally different in terms of tone and style, and I think West deserves credit for the way he stretches in each new film. He is not repeating himself, something that already makes him stand apart from many guys who work in genre these days.

His new film is told from the point of view of a team of journalists from VICE who decide to join Patrick (Kentucker Audley), one of their photographers, as he heads into the jungle to see his sister Caroline (Amy Seimetz), who joined a community for sober living. Originally located in Mississippi, they left the United States, and he hasn’t really heard from her since. Sam (AJ Bowen) and cameraman Jake (Joe Swanberg) accompany Patrick, and from the moment they arrive at the isolated camp, there is a sense of dread that West expertly draws out.

I have two main reservations with the film. First, I’m not sure the material is best served being told from the point of view of the camera, because there are things that I would have loved to have seen that simply couldn’t be logically cheated in a found-footage movie. While I think “Afflicted” managed to make the device work in service of the story, adding an emotional heft that made the film better, in “The Sacrament,” I find myself frustrated by things I wish I could have seen, and I feel like it is one layer of distance that the film did not need.

The other reservation is that the film is very, very straightforward. I can’t say I’m surprised by anything that happens in it, and I’m not sure I think West’s other films have been this linear in the way they deliver on their initial premise. If you know anything at all about cults, you’ll have a pretty good idea where things are headed from the moment Sam and Jake and Patrick arrive at the camp, and all the way to the final frames of the movie, it remains just that linear, just that straightforward. I think Father (Gene Jones), the charismatic center of the cult, is played just right, and probably my favorite scene in the film comes when Father agrees to sit with Sam for an interview.

I think what you lose approaching it this way is any moment where Father drops his guard and where we see what is happening behind the scenes. It’s a perspective question, and one of the most beautiful things about narrative storytelling is the unlimited options available to storytellers. When you lock yourself into one perspective that can’t shift logically, you reduce your own options, and in this case, I think West handcuffs himself a bit. I also wish the film offered more of an exploration of how a charismatic leader manages to not only establish but maintain control over an entire group of people, because that is the question that I never fully feel is answered by movies like this. I can’t imagine what would make me feel like throwing my entire life away to follow someone into a very dark and controlled world.

Performance-wise, I think everyone does solid work. As I said, Jones is a magnificent creep, and I was happy to see Bowen play this character because it’s one of the closest things I’ve seen to the actual AJ Bowen. He’s played so many heavy roles in so many films that it’s great to see him on the other side of things. He comes across as bright and curious and makes a strong choice in not making Sam a cynical journalist douchebag, which would be the easy choice. Swanberg’s role is smaller because he is so frequently meant to be the guy behind the camera, and Amy Seimetz, so stunning in this year’s “Upstream Color,” ably sells the notion of this broken girl who found what she needed in this cult, and who is willing to do anything to protect the peace she’s found.

Having Eric Robbins shoot the film makes sense. Not only is he one of the first guys West worked with on “The Roost,” but he’s actually shot a documentary, the outstanding “Beware Of Mr. Baker,” and that experience does seem to inform the way he approaches this material.

While I don’t believe you always need to compare films when reviewing them, it’s hard not to set “The Sacrament” next to “Safe Haven,” the Gareth Evans segment from this year’s “V/H/S 2,” which not only tweaks the expectations of an audience well past anything you could predict, but which is also a technical marvel. “The Sacrament” is, like everything Ti West makes, solid and smart and well-calibrated, but out of his recent films, it would be the last of them that I’d return to for pleasure.

If Magnolia does pick the film up, I look forward to them announcing dates for both VOD and theatrical soon.