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The Sacrament (2014)

Deja Kool-Aid

I'm officially over Ti West. The writer/director's breakout picture, The House of the Devil, is one of my favorite horror films of the last decade. But as that decade wears on, his movies become more derivative, flat, and downright indefensible. That he's taken up with a cadre of hipster filmmakers who apparently think they invented the medium is, perhaps, just a sad coincidence. The blame for his downward spiral into mediocrity rests squarely on his shoulders, though--just as the blame for holding out hope with each new project rests on mine.

West pushes along his rusty, cumbersome "throwback" train with The Sacrament, a movie whose entire premise and execution will likely feel like a put-on to anyone over a certain age. Younger fans may be thrilled, terrified, and amazed by the adventures of three filmmakers traveling to the jungle to interview a charismatic cult leader. Father (Gene Jones) deploys the fire of scripture with the charm of Southern sweet tea, and has created a new, off-the-grid community called Eden Parish--all funded by hundreds of "congregants" he'd convinced to sell their worldly possessions. One of these poor saps is former high-society drug addict Caroline (Amy Seimetz), whose brother, Patrick (Kentucker Audley), teams up with the world-traveling, myth-busting show, Vice, to rescue her and expose Father's fraud.

If your Spidey Sense is tingling, congratulations on remembering the late-70s Jonestown Massacre in Guyana. The Sacrament is literally a found-footage version of that. From the secret intimidation and sexual abuse to the infamous Kool-Aid-drinking mass suicide climax and landing strip attack, the only thing new here is a tacked-on happy ending and gore. I don't mind updating movies for modern audiences, but I can't think of anything--anything--that West brought to the table, except for shaky cameras and the most profoundly un-self-aware protagonists in recent years.

Let me get this straight: Sam (AJ Bowen) is a big-wig at Vice, a show that prides itself on cutting-edge, globe-trotting investigative journalism. His cameraman, Jake (Joe Swanberg), has also, I assume, seen a lot of crazy stuff on his travels. Yet, they and Patrick are completely freaked out by the gun-wielding guerillas Father has posted outside his camp (and not in a "this could go either way" way, but in a "nobody told me there'd be automatic weapons in this lawless wilderness" way). These clowns are so lippy, obnoxious, and clueless that I thought for a moment West had tricked me into watching The Hangover Part 4.

The only bit of suspense West manages to wring from this picture is whether or not anyone will acknowledge Jonestown--the very template for the events in which these characters find themselves. It's like going into a production meeting for a bold, new sci-fi movie that features laser swords, an intergalactic empire, and a big secret between the main protagonist and antagonist--where no one mentions Star Wars.

The Sacrament falls directly in line with The Innkeepers, You're Next, and the V/H/S films, delivering slick mediocrity with a wholly unearned self-assuredness that prioritizes branding above brains or balls. In fact, West may have inadvertently fallen down a second meta rabbit hole with this one, as his film is also strikingly similar to V/H/S 2's segment, Safe Haven--a found-footage tale of a documentary crew heading into the jungle to expose a charismatic cult leader. That mini-movie shared Jonestown as a template, too, but added some nasty supernatural elements that completely changed the game.

In fairness, two of The Sacrament's actors make the movie almost worth watching. Jones is terrific as Father, painting an enigmatic portrait of a businessman who may have finally come to the ultimate crossroads of his own bullshit--or maybe he actually believes his nonsense.* Still, he's no Powers Boothe, who won an Emmy for his portrayal of maniac preacher Jim Jones in 1980. And Seimetz does very well with the thankless "hysterical hippie sister" role. But I'm not sure how much of my enjoyment of her was just a carryover from Upstream Color (the actress also appeared briefly in You're Next, a fact that got my butt into the theatre opening weekend. Lesson. Learned).

I dont' know what to make of these young auteurs. They have all the technical talent in the world, but little in the way of original thought (if their output is any indication). Everything is references, throw-backs, and snarky, uninformed comments on pop culture from decades past. I feel guilty beating up on them because I genuinely believe they think they're forging new territory. Unfortunately, it's easy to look at The Sacrament as just plain forgery.

*Which is scarier?

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