The Sacrament (London Film Festival 2013) Review
Ti West introduced the screening of The Sacrament by noting the film might not be what the audience were expecting. The horror marks the first of West’s films to not feature any supernatural elements (Joe Swanberg’s impressive basketball skills don’t count), although it sticks to his slow-burn style – except this time the fear factor comes from human cruelty. The Sacrament is framed as a fake documentary created by two Vice journalists (Joe Swanberg and AJ Bowen). The found footage technique is a distracting storytelling device and often incomprehensible. Much of my time was spent wondering who, if anyone, was holding the camera – and why they didn’t drop it and run away. The documentary idea springs up when a Vice colleague (Kentucky Audley) is sent a letter by his missing sister (Amy Seimetz), with the note revealing she lives in a mysterious commune in an isolated rural area. The trio fly by helicopter to investigate further, only to discover a religious cult led by a frightening, older figure named “Father” (Gene Jones). Generalisations turn out to be true: members are encouraged to recruit family members and raise funds, while a murkier streak of suspicion flows through group activities. Although the group is supposed to be sober, the exceptions suggest the commune serves another purpose. Members of the cult smile in unison, somewhat disturbingly; one family seep through the cracks and inform the journalists they can be punished for talking to “outsiders”. The Vice reporters spot further evidence of brainwashing, but “Father” avoids their questions with ease. The interrogation takes place in front of the commune as an audience, outnumbering the cornered interviewers who stutter when their journalism style is questioned – namely that their intrusion ruins the privacy and lifestyle of the “family” for the sake of an article. If the plot starts to sound like any real-life incident, then you’re sort of right and sort of wrong. West mentioned in the Q&A it’d be unjust to portray any historic events because that would require an eight-hour miniseries to serve any justice. With this, West highlights the flimsiness of The Sacrament: it plays like a rushed, inaccurate version of better known examples. The final act is powerful, sure, but because it echoes history. When certain characters die, there’s no mourning over them as specific people, as their few lines of dialogue barely shape a persona. In that sense, The Sacrament is a rushed job – which is primarily what West’s filmmaking wishes to oppose. The Sacrament is the London Film Festival’s “Cult” gala screening. More information can be found here.