the sacrament

Ti West’s tale of a Jim Jones like religious cult utilises a clever narrative device; the story is recounted through footage shot by a Vice magazine team, who travel to the group’s compound in an unnamed country at the invitation of a photographer whose sister is a member of the group.

They are understandably taken aback at the presence of vaguely hostile armed guards when they first arrive at the compound, but after spending time with group members the Vice team concede that many of the people there appear content. The leader of the group is a messianic figure known as Father, and after interviewing him in front of an audience of his adoring followers and speaking to a few disgruntled, fearful group members the journalists start to believe that all isn’t quite what it appears to be.

The Sacrament’s intriguing setup is squandered by predictability and the filmmaker’s irritating refusal to stick to reality/found footage ‘rules’ (shots from perspectives or angles that don’t correspond to the position of people in the film, footage utilised from a source that is clearly lost, etc). West’s narrative sticks loosely to the arc of the destruction of the Jim Jones cult in Guyana, and in doing so robs the film of any real suspense; when the outcome suddenly lurches towards tragedy, it’s too abrupt a turn to be plausible.

The unknown Gene Jones as the cult’s leader is a revelation. His Father is a chillingly convincing mix of charm and smarm, and while it makes sense to hold back his first appearance until the last act of the film, it’s also unfortunate as his smiling cobra holds one’s attention unlike anything else on screen.