Film Dispenser had the privilege of attending the First Annual Chattanooga Film Festival together. Over the next few days, we post reviews of the films we saw.
Writer/director Ti West is a master of dread. When gore and dismemberments have become the staples of modern horror films, West manipulates audience expectations and slowly ratchets up the tension. There are moments in his films where the suspense is almost unbearable. The audience knows that all is not what it seems, but they don’t know when or how the frightening reality will be revealed. When he has creative control of a project, it can be a nice slow, relentless burn.
West’s latest effort, The Sacrament, is a horrifying film, but it’s not a “horror film” in any conventional sense. After giving audiences a stellar addition to the Babysitter in Peril genre in House of the Devil (2009) and riffing on the haunted house genre in The Innkeepers (2011), West unveils The Sacrament, a disturbing psychological drama with none of the trappings of a horror film. There are no ghosts or demons or madmen on the loose. The evil on display in this film is not an external force that can be guarded against or fought during bouts of grisly violence. The Sacrament focuses on the dark deeds committed by seemingly normal human beings which are arguably the most frightening evils of all.
Caroline (Amy Seimetz) has a history of substance abuse that has led her to leave her drug rehab program and join Eden Parrish, a commune of sorts. When the commune suddenly abandons its home in the United States and moves to a new secret location, Caroline’s brother, Patrick (Kentucker Audley), becomes concerned for his sister’s welfare. Patrick enlists the help of two journalist friends, Sam (A.J. Bowen) and Jake (Joe Swanberg), to travel to Eden Parish and check on his sister. The two reporters are intrigued by the prospect of a story on brainwashing and cults, and soon they are disembarking from a helicopter at a remote location to begin filming their visit to Eden Parish.
After a disquieting encounter with a patrol of gunmen, the three men are greeted by Caroline who looks healthy and sober. They are promised an audience with “Father”, the leader of Eden Parish, and are shown to their modest living quarters. The members of the commune appear to be happy and living a life free from the stress of the outside world.
However, the commune members are reluctant to interact with Sam and Jake. One woman refers to Sam as “an outsider” and implies that she’s not allowed to speak with the journalist. For a supposed paradise on Earth, the members of Eden Parish seem to be a bit nervous. Sam plans to dig further and discover the mystery behind the commune’s false façade of freewill and happiness. Any fan of these types of films knows that probably isn’t a wise decision, but I will reveal nothing further about the plot.
Gene Jones gives an outstanding performance as the charismatic man known to his flock only as “Father”. Audiences will remember Jones as the convenience store proprietor who played a lethal game of chance with Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men. In The Sacrament, the actor is given the opportunity to play the central figure of the film, and he makes the most of it.
Looking like a kindly old man who should be bouncing children on his knee, Jones gives Father a sinister edge. His line readings drip with double meanings. His words may sound pleasant, even encouraging, but they are filled with warnings and implied threats to those who do not adopt his ways. The formal interview between Father and Sam is the centerpiece of the film and is nothing short of mesmerizing. The conversation begins with false pleasantries and empty platitudes, and as Sam presses Father for answers, things take a dark turn.
This film is another entry in the “found footage” genre that was originated by The Blair Witch Project (1999) and has been perpetuated by the Paranormal Activity (2007 – present) franchise. While our protagonists are admittedly filming a documentary, and the first person camera perspective gives the film a little more of a journalistic feel, it can also be a distraction. In one scene, the camera falls to the ground, but then conveniently captures footage of the men in pursuit of the cameraman as they wander into the frame. It’s a narrative device that isn’t needed to tell this particular story and feels gimmicky at times.
The Sacrament is surprisingly devoid of plot twists and suffers somewhat from its predictability. There are few events that transpire on screen that you aren’t expecting. That said the film is an intense experience. In the screening I attended at the Chattanooga Film Festival, you could hear a literal pin drop while the credits rolled. As cast members and producers of the film filed into the auditorium for a post-screening Q & A, the audience was nearly speechless as they processed what they had just seen. The Sacrament makes an impact. It will leave its mark on you.
The Movie Isle
Scott Phillips holds a degree in print journalism from the University of Georgia and is currently a member of the Georgia Film Critics Association (GAFCA). In addition to his role as a correspondent for Timed Edition, Scott serves as the Executive Editor and Senior Writer for themovieisle.com. From 2013 through 2017, he reviewed films for filmdispenser.com. Along with his duties as a critic, Scott serves as the Content Programmer for the Way Down Film Festival held in Columbus, Georgia every fall.