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Sacrament, The

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 06/27/14 20:46:30

"Meticulous construction, but nothing new."
3 stars (Just Average)

The text at the beginning of "The Sacrament" describes the journalistic style of its protagonists as "immersionism", and I suspect that this is writer/director Ti West's goal as well - getting the audience inside a situation that it would otherwise consider alien. Unfortunately, he makes a few missteps that must have seemed like good ideas in doing so, and his ability to execute a good scare sequence only gets him so far.

One of those missteps, I think, is telling its story in faux-documentary style, which means West starts by introducing us to Sam (AJ Bowen) and Jake (Joe Swanberg), a reporter and videographer for Vice Media, and their friend Patrick (Kentucker Audley), a fashion photographer with a story about how his sister's sober living community has packed up and moved to the middle of some Latin American jungle. They wrangle an invitation to visit, but there are men with guns to pass before they see Caroline (Any Seimetz). She seems in good spirits, though a bit reluctant to introduce them to "Father" (Gene Jones).

At its best, this documentary or found-footage style is the cinematic equivalent of writing a novel in the first person - inherently subjective, allowing the viewer to experience exactly what the characters are feeling. In this case, though, it has the opposite effect, always keeping the audience on the periphery, not letting the audience feel what the likes of Caroline who have deeply-rooted turmoils and temptations are feeling. The big interview with Father is manipulated into taking on the feel of a late-night talk show, which only gets across that he is quite good at controlling his perception, although at the cost of making Jake look bad at his job. And maybe that's the effect West wants to create, to keep Farther and Caroline and a whole village full of people like her mysterious and unknowable, a danger to normal people who encounter them at the wrong time - an external horror as opposed to an internal one. It's valid, I suppose, but also the safe call.

And, speaking of horrors, The Sacrament's transition to a no-doubt-about it thriller toward the end is often kind of clumsy. Not entirely - Ti West may often go for a slower burn than some like, but he's one of the best at maintaining the tension he has built - but the not getting into the heads of Father and his flock earlier makes the turning point seem arbitrary. Once it happens, things keep moving forward, though a little disjointedly, but there are other problems. Some are born of the format, including one that illustrates the can't-win position first-person films are often in: When someone keeps shooting during danger, it feels artificial, but when they sensibly drop the camera, all the exciting stuff happens off-screen, and this movie manages both in short succession. It was also never really in doubt what West was using for inspiration, but it's a bit surprising just how on the nose he is, going with something that has become part of the vernacular and he's go limited success reclaiming it from sarcasm. It's a well-executed take on the material, but it feels very familiar, with the most interest coming from whether Father will be revealed as a true believer or an opportunist.

That's compelling, though, because Gene Jones takes the role and runs with it, playing just big enough to make it no surprise that people would follow him without seeming too much like a character in a scenario that is ostensibly real. That means the rest of the cast has to reel it in somewhat, but they're all strong, especially considering how interchangeable Jake, Sam, and Patrick could potentially have been. Amy Seimetz is strong too.

Make no mistake, "The Sacrament" is a strong movie all around, and to a certain extent, I'm complaining about it not being the movie I want it to be (the one which shows us Caroline's whole story), which is unfair. West makes a movie that is often tense, occasionally intriguing, and well-executed enough from start to finish that it does retain the capability to chill, even though the story is so familiar. Ti West does such a stellar job of recreating a situation that the results would be really stellar if he opted to present some insight into it.

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