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Sacrament, The
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by Eric Lefenfeld

"Ti West gets real."
3 stars

SCREENED AT FANTASTIC FEST 2013: Naysayers who bemoan the demise of "real horror" will be doubly offended to learn that Ti West, who has garnered himself a reputation as a master of glacially-paced tension with "House Of the Devil" and "The Inkeepers," has now entered the found footage fray with his latest, "The Sacrament." West’s earlier films are purposeful throwbacks to the slow burns of the 60’s and 70’s, so it’s a little unexpected to see him do a complete 180 and dive head first into what is arguably the trendiest sort of modern horror. Fortunately, working in a new wheelhouse has done little to dampen West's skills as an architect of tightly-wound suspense.

Those who uniformly dismiss found footage do have one thing right -- there really is A LOT of garbage out there that exists solely as cheap bandwagon-jumping with little thought given to really using the strengths of the subgenre to their fullest. Ultimately, though, the wheat can be separated from the chaff based on how and why this “real” footage is being shot in the first place. “The Sacrament” has a pretty solid basis in this regard, centering its found footage conceit around something based firmly in reality -- a Vice documentary. For those unfamiliar, Vice is real-world publication that has made its mark in recent years by traveling around the world to document all manner of dangerous and/or scandalous subjects, from child soldiers in Africa to an incredibly surreal tour of North Korea. Vice prides itself on getting footage that no one else can, so the eternal question that plagues found footage films -- why the hell don’t these fools put down their cameras already? -- is given a solid answer that doesn’t distract from the unfolding narrative.

Sam (A.J. Bowen), Jake (Joe Swanberg), and Patrick (Kentucker Audley) are three Vice employees who find their latest documentary subject after Patrick receives a letter from his troubled sister that details how living in an isolated, self-sufficient community in Africa has saved her life. Needless to say, this piques their interest as chroniclers of international intrigue, so they arrange a visit to the mysterious village. They arrive at the optimistically-named Eden Parish, only to be greeted by short-tempered armed guards, a stark contrast to the religiously pure ideal for which the community supposedly stands. Upon finally entering, things don’t feel any less strange as the crew interviews wide-eyed residents espousing their unwavering belief in what they’ve built, and more specifically in Father, the charismatic leader who is the ringleader of the whole operation.

An isolated cult-like community, a too gregarious leader, and loyal subjects who hang on his every word -- it’s pretty clear from the get-go that the journalists’ time at Eden Parish will not end in a life-affirming round of Kumbaya. Unlike West’s earlier work, though, the scares don’t hinge on whatever mysterious evil might be lurking in a darkened hallway or behind a closed door. This time out, the growing dread is in seeing just how easily a smooth manipulator can sway vulnerable people into doing just about anything. At one point Sam discusses how even if the Eden Parish lifestyle is not for him, he can understand the appeal. That’s probably the scariest idea in the whole film. If Sam, a jaded hipster journalist from New York can fall under Father’s sway, even just to the point of sympathizing with his outlook, then what does that say about the legion of broken souls that have come to live there?

The magnitude of the man is never more apparent than when Father is finally shown in the flesh. His reveal is artfully deployed, appearing first as a disembodied drawl over a loudspeaker, spouting honeyed platitudes into the open air. He finally shows his face in a mid-film highlight, an extensive one-on-one interview between himself and Sam. Father (a perfectly cast Gene Jones, all jowls and car salesman charm) ladles on the oily allure and wastes no time in turning the tables on Sam, swiftly taking control of the interview. A.J. Bowen must be given credit for subtly adjusting his character’s attitude, shifting from the sort of smarmy elitism Vice correspondents are known for into something much more vulnerable.

When the film reaches its inevitably violent climax, West doesn’t shy away in his depiction of the Jonestown-inspired horrors. His tendency to cultivate fear by what is unseen has been replaced by a roving camera (except for one crucial scene that makes heartbreakingly perfect use of a static shot) that doesn’t shy away from the brutality -- all of which occurs in broad daylight to ensure that nothing is left to the imagination. There’s a fine line between overt depictions of horrendous acts and exploiting violence for its own sake. There’s no doubt “The Sacrament” has more than its fair share of gore and bodily fluids, but its starkness is nothing that an audience not compromised of sociopaths would cheer for. West wants to humanize Father’s subjects, to show that the people who suffer at the hands of dangerous cult leaders are not just faceless drones. He mostly succeeds in this regard, even if only a few are rounded out beyond broad caricatures. It helps that Amy Seimetz, who was recently the glue at the center of “Upstream Color,” is there to do much of the heavy lifting as Patrick’s sister. She starts the film as the perfect model of hippie flightiness, and that attitude never fully dissipates even as she goes to some incredibly dark places. Seemingly normal people are capable of immense evils, and her tragic performance exemplifies this notion.

Every genre has its highs and lows, and found footage is no different. Like reality TV or Miley Cyrus, it’s a trend with surprisingly long-lasting legs that isn’t going to be disappearing anytime soon, so the good ones should be embraced rather than being dismissed outright. “The Sacrament” ultimately doesn’t break with the established formula to the point that it will change the minds of people who have already made up their minds about found footage.

Even if West isn’t reinventing the wheel this time out, he demonstrates that he can step out of his established comfort zone while still retaining a deep respect and love of a genre that is too often the victim of schlocky hackwork.

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originally posted: 09/27/13 23:29:18
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 Venice Film Festival For more in the 2013 Venice Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 Fantastic Fest For more in the 2013 Fantastic Fest series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 Chicago International Film Festival For more in the 2013 Chicago International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 AFI Film Festival For more in the 2013 AFI Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Miami International Film Festival For more in the 2014 Miami International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Stanley Film Festival For more in the 2014 Stanley Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Independent Film Festival Boston For more in the 2014 Independent Film Festival Boston series, click here.

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  06-Jun-2014 (R)
  DVD: 19-Aug-2014


  DVD: 19-Aug-2014

Directed by
  Ti West

Written by
  Ti West

  Amy Seimetz
  Joe Swanberg
  Kate Lyn Sheil
  AJ Bowen
  Gene Jones
  Kentucker Audley

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