Indie horror filmmaker Ti West is best known as the modern king of "slow burn" horror (seriously, there are hardly any reviews that DON'T use that phrase -- I promised myself I was going to avoid it and now have done it in the first paragraph). His movies are all about steadily mounting dread and tension that feels like it's never going to let up. His latest film The Sacrament is another exercise in gradual horror, making us feel like shit's all going to go bad but putting knots in our stomachs as we wait for it to happen. What's different this time isn't just the way the story is told (more on that in a second), but who his monsters are. He's covered vampires and flesh eating viruses and satanists and ghosts, but this is West's first real film dealing with human horror.
AJ Bowen (Grow Up Tony Phillips) and Joe Swanberg (You're Next) star as documentary filmmakers for Vice whose friend Patrick (Kentucker Audley) plans a visit to see his sister (Amy Seimetz, Upstream Color), a former drug addict who has been living on a commune since leaving rehab. Intrigued by story of life on a commune and the mystery surrounding Eden Parish, Bowen and Swanberg tag along with cameras in the hopes of getting some footage. Immediately upon arriving, though, they encounter armed guards, commune members who appear to be hiding something and, eventually, the charismatic leader called only Father (Gene Jones). The presence of outsiders disrupts the order at Eden Parish, giving way to violence and chaos reminiscent of a famously similar tragedy from the 1970s.
The Sacrament is being referred to in most outlets as West's "found footage" movie, which isn't entirely accurate. Yes, it is shot handheld and is told from a first person POV perspective, but the photography is slick instead of grainy and edited together into a faux documentary -- there is no conceit that the footage was merely "found," but rather that it was cut together into what we are presented. Aside from quibbling over the accuracy of the label, is the aesthetic West chooses for the story necessary? Does it add anything to the movie? I'm not so sure. On the one hand, he seems to be saying something about the way that media can distance us from certain atrocities; on the other, it's only because they're media that Swanberg and Bowen even have access to Eden Parish. Do those two observations cancel one another out? If the film is making some commentary on the "media," it is subtext that's buried deep, deep down. I'm searching for it because I like West so much as a filmmaker that I'm trying to justify the faux-doc approach (why else is it used?) and to convince myself the film is not as straightforward as it seems.
There's so much to like in The Sacrament that it pains me not to like it more. For the first two thirds, West does his usual expert job at building a sense of unease -- we know it's going to go bad, we just don't know when or exactly how. It's even more impressive that he's able to create his usual atmosphere of dread not in some creepy old house or hotel, but outdoors in bright daylight. Gene Jones is very good as the cult leader (but, then, so was Michael Parks in Red State, which suggests the quality of both roles is built in to that position), offering just the right amount of charisma, faux-wisdom and menace. I also like that so much of the cult is made up a diverse population; we're so used to seeing pressed-pants white people in bubble wrap in cult depictions (yes, that's a Dude, Where's My Car? reference) that seeing so many minority faces helps remind us why people might turn to such a lifestyle in the first place. They are disenfranchised. Discarded by traditional society. For as fucked up as life is in Eden Parish, at least there is equality. At least everyone is made to feel like he or she matters.
In the end, The Sacrament does manage to horrify. It presents me with images I prefer not to have in my brain. I'm just not sure it earns them.