Monday, September 15, 2014

THE SACRAMENT (Ti West, 2013, USA)

1. A rite believed to be a means of or visible form of grace, especially.

From one addiction to another, a group of lost souls build a Commune deep within a South American jungle to escape the violent world. There they fall under the godspell of Father whose secret ambitions may be worse. Director Ti West uses the “found footage” genre to re-create a modern version of the Jonestown Massacre, where those failing to understand the past are destined to repeat it. Ti West’s film becomes a warning about the corrupting influence of religion especially when focused through one charismatic figure, with ethics as ethereal as light separated by a multifaceted prism.

The film begins with talking heads on the VICE Channel, a peripheral news network seemingly more concerned with entertainment than actual facts and supporting evidence, who are speaking directly to the camera . We are quickly introduced to the main characters Patrick (the fashion photographer), Sam (the interviewer) and Jake (the cameraman). These three decide to travel together to interview Patrick’s troubled sister Caroline who has joined a Commune and written a letter asking her brother to visit. The directions are vague and cryptic and the three soon decide it would make a great story. Ti West uses the setup of an entertainment channel (think Entertainment Tonight) to propel the subjectivity of the “found footage” viewpoint to reveal much of the narrative. However, he soon rips that POV apart and edits it within the parameters of a standard subjective viewpoint of a horror film. It works fairly well and the viewer quickly forgets who is filming what, or why we are seeing medium close-ups perfectly framed while Jake’s camera is shooting another angle or is turned off.

Though it’s not hard to guess what happens (as we all know the Jonestown Massacre, right?) Ti West takes his time and builds the suspense step by step in a realistic and believable manner. As they set down in a clearing after flying for presumably hours over impenetrable jungle, Patrick, Sam and Jake’s first sign of trouble is the men wielding machine guns who are to take them to Eden Parish. Why would a peaceful commune need weapons? Here it becomes obvious that the three “reporters” have not been honest because only Patrick requested a visit with his sister and not the whole crew. A tense argument erupts and one doesn’t argue with an armed guide! However they are allowed to proceed and meet Caroline at the entrance.

Now the tension slowly builds as Patrick is separated from them and Sam and Jake roam the compound trying to interview members. Most people hide their faces and shuffle uncomfortably away. A mute little girl tries to make contact but she is quickly called away by her mother. On the surface everything seems fine as a few people spout mundane accomplishments and even the hospital seems well stocked and antiseptic. But Sam wonders how a small field hospital can care for so many elderly residents and support the newborn babies. Here it is revealed that Sam is awaiting his own first child back in the world which sets up more tension as he eventually fights for his life.

Soon an interview with Father before the whole congregation is granted and Sam and Jake prepare rather mundane questions. Though they both have a slight feeling of being led astray or lied to, Father is an engaging and charismatic man. He is also excellently portrayed by Gene Jones (any relation to Jim?) and really carries the whole weight of the film: if he’s not believable then the structure crumbles and the story doesn’t work. But Jones is up to the task and is wonderful and forthright as the spiritual center of the compound. He expounds upon the members who have given up everything to build this new beginning, away from the negativity and violence that Sam and Jake are still blinded by. Though Father speaks with a hypnotically loving voice and has kind mannerisms, he can also be understood to speak in masked threats. Sam is shaken up and overwhelmed and almost comes under his spell. Soon things all over the compound are shaken up!

The outsiders soon bring the promise of corruption to Eden Parish and Father now flexes his religious and spiritual muscle. An inebriated Caroline reveals that father is trying to seduce her brother into staying so their wealthy parents will send money. Father realizes that when this story breaks to the world that his vision is doomed. So Father has them all gather and offer their very lives to the Lord: it’s not suicide, it’s a Sacrament. Some resist but most drink the blood-colored Kool-Aid and those who don’t are shot. Meanwhile the three protagonists are struggling to survive by hiding from gunmen all night and trying to reach the helicopter which will return at daybreak. In one brutally realistic scene Caroline injects her brother with poison as he’s tied to a chair. He struggles and screams and fights against the onrushing darkness as his body jumps and convulses. Ti West is not masking the physical horror in this religious fanaticism: we see a child’s throat slit, brains and clumps of hair, vomiting and slow death. The path to their god is littered with violent intentions.

Sam and Jake eventually make it back to the helicopter but they are far from safe. The pilot has been shot and as they take off and circle the compound, we get one last long look at the cruelty and violence that was supposedly left behind in the real world. Here, condensed in microcosm, is a reflection of that world.

Final Grade: (B)