“The Sacrament”: a review from the Savannah Film Festival

The Sacrament tells the gripping story of a cult rattled by sudden scrutiny from a couple of journalists from VICE.

This latest movie from the talented young director and writer Ti West skillfully uses a documentary technique. We see the action as it is recorded by the reporters’ cameras, which are also part of the action.

The story begins with fashion photographer Patrick trying to check up on his sister Caroline (Amy Seimetz), who appears to have finally gotten sober — but only by joining a small religious community that has retreated from the U.S. to some country in South or Central America. Sam (A.J. Bowen) and Jake (Joe Swanberg) from VICE decide to tag along and shoot documentary footage of the community at the isolated Eden Parish.

I can’t say that there are any particularly likable characters in The Sacrament, but the movie’s immediacy and its sharp pacing pull the viewers into the story.

The problem is that we have seen this story before. Viewers of a certain age will see the Jim Jones/Jonestown/People’s Temple connections early on — and those comparisons become more and more specific as the action moves briskly ahead.

There was a young couple next to us at last night’s screening at the Savannah Film Festival — neither were aware of the history of People’s Temple. They saw a very different movie than we did.

So if you don’t know that story, and if you’re planning to see The Sacrament, stop reading right now. Spoilers lie ahead.

As Father, the character patterned after Jim Jones, Gene Jones is eerie and compelling — with a saccharine sweetness concealing an apocalyptic and evil will. Jones is especially good during an extended interview in front of his deluded flock as he mocks Sam’s questions and plays to his crowd, sweat slowly dripping down his face.

But despite Father’s public dominance of his congregants, Eden Parish is unraveling from within, and the journalists’ presence plants the seeds of rebellion and paranoia. Several members want to leave with the visitors, echoing the events that precipitated the mass suicide at Jonestown.

As the tension heightens in The Sacramant, I kept waiting — in vain, as it turned out — for some significant departure from the Jonestown story. The 2006 documentary Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple is far more horrifying than The Sacrament, and the true story of the 900+ deaths at Jonestown dwarfs the 167 who died at the fictional Eden Parish.

In a Q&A after the film at the Lucas Theatre, Gene Jones said that he had not looked at footage of Jim Jones or at other cinematic takes on the story as models for his performance, but West’s script and costuming evoke Jim Jones so specifically that there’s little room for interpretation. Maybe Gene Jones should have looked at those previous efforts so that he could find more ways to distinguish Father from his much more sinister real-life model.

Ti West is obviously a very talented filmmaker. With The Sacrament, he has moved to some degree beyond the bounds of horror films. It’s a daring jump, and it will certainly be exciting to watch where West’s career goes from here.

But The Sacrament would have been a better film if it had departed more boldly from the source material.