Ti West’s “The Sacrament” bubbles with greatness just below the surface, but never really breaks free. It’s tense and creepy when it needs to be, features a sensational central performance by Gene Jones as a religious cult impresario, and makes nice use of the tired found footage device. Unfortunately, the movie suffers from a sudden shift in tone two-thirds of the way in, and never fully recovers from there.
A series of opening title cards informs us that Patrick’s (Kentucker Audley) sister, Caroline (Seimetz), who joined a religious group some years before, has been secreted out of the United States to a secluded jungle commune. Patrick agrees to let the fringe news organization, VICE, headed by the serious, if pretentious, Sam (AJ Bowen), document his attempt to rescue his sister. With cameraman Jake in tow (Joe Swanberg), the group gets a bumpy start after helicoptering into to the compound, as two armed soldiers turn them away before Caroline intervenes and welcomes them to Eden Parish.
As Patrick reunites with his sister, Sam interviews the locals. To Sam’s surprise, everyone appears to love Eden Parish, with its simple cottages and medical tent and vast fields of produce and grains. Having shucked off the shackles of the modern world — courtesy of the mysterious “Father,” who can be heard uttering platitudes of peace and solitude over a loud speaker, but not seen — the citizens seem to have settled into the benign rhythm of a truly collaborative community. West subtly builds tension here by showing us everyday life in the Parish, while undercutting the most ordinary of moments with an insistent underscore that’s like the humming of a live wire and flatly refusing to show us Father. Somehow, we’re sure that things at the Parish aren’t as rosy as they seem. Then, Sam insists on interviewing the man these people call their savior.
I won’t dare reveal any more of the movie’s plot, except to say that Sam gets more than he bargained for while interviewing the duplicitous Father, who looks very much as Jim Jones might have had he lived into his seventies. West gives us a remarkable stretch of filmmaking, as Father, with his deep southern drawl and sepia-tinted sunglasses that hide his eyes, castigates the evils of western civilization, while cutting down challenges to his beliefs with unalloyed manipulation. Jones shows masterful control over his character’s emotions, never giving in to Sam’s attempts to stick his nose where it’s manifestly not wanted or undermine his control over his minions. It’s a deliberate, creepy, perfectly-honed performance that, with any luck, should garner Jones some year-end awards attention.
Sadly, the movie never lives up to Father’s spectacular introduction. His true intentions for the commune, once revealed, make sense in light of everything that has come before, but feel jarring because the tone thus far has lead us to believe we’re firmly rooted in the realm of suspense. Having deflated his own set-up, West then dials the tension down to zero and ratchets up the melodramatics, all but flattening what should have been a powerful and disturbing finale. There’s a lot of running and yelling, and boneheaded people doing boneheaded things that are contrary to survival, and the end credits arrive with a thud.
Ti West is a gifted filmmaker. He’s positioned himself at the top of the New Horror Revolution heap with the superlative “House of the Devil” and “The Innkeepers,” and I respect that he tried something different here, even if it doesn’t work. With this one minor misstep in his past, I think West is still looking at a fine career, and I, for one, can’t wait to see what he does next.