Ti West's 'The Sacrament' is a found-footage road to nowhere
The Sacrament Magnet Releasing
Director: Ti West
Screenplay: Ti West
Starring: AJ Bowen, Amy Seimetz, Gene Jones, Joe Swanberg and Kentucker Audley
Rated R / 1 hour, 35 minutes
Now playing in limited release and VOD
(out of four)
I'm not entirely sure what Ti West set out to accomplish with The Sacrament. On paper, he has an interesting combination of material and aesthetic - a movie about a religious cult, told through first-person camerawork. And yet, he somehow manages the dual feat of saying absolutely nothing about the religious cult at the center of the film (or cults in general), and doing nothing of value with the POV technique.
In fairness, West tries to give the format narrative purpose by framing the story as a Vice documentary, but he winds up making even less visual sense of it than most "found footage" movies. A crew of three goes to investigate a mysterious cult somewhere in South Africa, and they're equipped with two cameras - in some scenes, only one. And yet, in scene after scene, we get footage that a two-camera crew could not possibly have recorded.
There's one key scene in which reporter/producer Sam (AJ Bowen) is publicly interviewing the cult's reclusive leader (Gene Jones) known only as Father. To Sam's right is one camera - operated by Jake (Joe Swanberg), and pointed directly at Father. Meanwhile, the second cameraman, Patrick (Kentucker Audley), is roaming capturing the audience - reaction shots and the like. And as the interview goes on, the film keeps cutting back and forth between shots of Father, Sam and the audience. How is Sam even being recorded at all? Who is pointing a camera at him*? Is there a third cameraman hiding behind a grassy knoll somewhere?
* If you're assuming it's Patrick, no dice. The shots of Sam are frequent, and always from the exact same angle - all while Patrick is busy getting coverage of the other parishioners.
In other words, the film is largely shot in the same way it would be without the first-person conceit - if it was simply handheld verite minimalism. This happens repeatedly - full scenes that cut from shot to shot in a way that would be nigh impossible with the number of cameras we know these guys have at their disposal. West doesn't take advantage of the format - he just cheats his way through it, instead of finding a creative ways to justify his shots. This is the sloppiest, most nonsensical use of the format since David Ayer's execrable End of Watch.
Using Vice as a justification for the stylistic choice is clever and interesting - at least theoretically. But ultimately it doesn't change anything about - or add anything to - the way the filmmaking operates, aside from the periodic inclusion of title cards to provide statistical context or fill in narrative gaps.
Furthermore, while my familiarity with Vice is fairly minimal, I have to assume their journalists are better at their jobs than the clowns investigating the cult in The Sacrament. Sam is a poor interviewer (has he ever heard of a follow-up question?) with poor news judgment. His decision to even investigate Eden Parish in the first place makes little sense. His photographer Patrick tells him about a series of letters between him and his mercurial sister Caroline (Amy Seimetz), who's battled drug problems. She's left the country for a religious commune, but cheerfully invites her brother for a visit. And so Sam, Patrick and Co.'s collective reaction is OMG YOU GUYS THAT'S SO MYSTERIOUS, WE HAVE TO CHECK OUT THAT STORY.
What story? There is no story. No doubt there are thousands upon thousands of obscure religious communities across the globe. The fact that these guys find out about the existence of one of those thousands - without any hint that it's in any way sinister, and accompanied by an invitation for a sibling to visit - would not set off alarm bells for any decent journalist. (That it does turn out to be more sinister than it appears is little more than a happy, or unhappy, accident.) Or, it's just a really slow day at the Vice offices and they have no other leads on better stories.
But enough about that. The film could survive the inane contrivance if there were anything particularly unique about the cult in question, or the events that take place there. But there isn't. The way you would imagine a movie about a secret religious cult to play out is just how The Sacrament plays out. The members of the parish act like you would expect the members of the parish to act. The secrets are what you expect them to be. The climactic events are especially unconvincing; the idea that the presence of one crappy journalist and a couple of photographers has such a massive impact on the goings-on at the camp is absurd, and generally indicative of the lack of thought given to every element of the film.
There's actually an intriguing racial component in the film that I expected to go somewhere, but to no avail. The makeup of Father's parish is disproportionately black (while Father himself is a very typical white southerner), leading me to assume that West was going for some sort of commentary on race-based exploitation. But it never amounts to anything.
And that's the rub. Every time it seems The Sacrament has grabbed ahold of a concept, it slips away before anything can be done with it, leaving us with a film as baseless as it is banal.