Ti West’s latest venture, The Sacrament tells the story of three young men; Sam (AJ Bowen), Jake (Joe Swanberg), and Patrick (Kentucker Audley), who travel to a secluded commune, in the hopes of documenting Patrick’s reunion with his estranged sister, Caroline (Amy Seimetz). However, as they discover by the end of their trip, everything is not as as it seems in Eden Parish. West’s previous directorial efforts, most notably The House of the Devil, a fanboy’s ode to 80s satanic flicks, and his more recent sleeper The Innkeepers, which effectively deconstructs the “haunted” sub-genre, were tremendously satisfying character studies if nothing else, but The Sacrament’s undertaking might have finally proven too much for the horror director. Within the first 15 minutes, West’s characters tackle the complex character of Father (Gene Jones). In his mesmerizing performance as Father, Jones decries modern society for its racism, its sexist attitudes, and obsessive consumerism. It’s a solid start to a horror movie that seems to have something profound to say. Unfortunately, by the end, these serious subjects are proven to be just bullet points and we are left with an enjoyable horror film, but a passive cultural critique.
Nevertheless, Father begins to address the problems of the outside world, before eventually revealing the darker side of paradise. What makes Jones so magnetic in this role is, every line is laced with something simultaneously, charismatic and creepy; the necessary traits of any good cult leader. At this point, logic dictates- well, if it looks like a cult, talks like a cult, and walks like a cult… you’re probably dealing with a cult. It’s just one of those instances where, the lead-in might be a little too heavy-handed for the inevitable pay-off. However, the warmth of the enigmatic Father explains a lot of the actions of his followers. Sam even says, at one point, “desperation is what brought a lot of people here.” It really is as simple as that. Now, why Sam, Jake, and Patrick take so long to catch on? We will just chop that up to “horror movie logic.”
This is one of the areas where The Sacrament falters; the use of “horror movie logic,” which is to say, in instances where any normal person would be ready to get out, these characters stay. The film never fully tackles why they stay so long, instead choosing to throw in an occasional “wait, where’s Patrick? We can’t leave without Patrick” instead of addressing the lunacy of their continued presence in Eden Parish. For any other movie, this might be a bigger issue. While it certainly doesn’t help this film, the performances of the actors are enjoyable enough to forgive these lapses.
Truth be told, character development has never been a strong suit of the genre. The Sacrament falls into the same traps as most, choosing to give one character the cliché trait of, “I have a baby on the way, so I have to make it out alive.” They are not well-rounded characters. Somehow, that doesn’t diminish from the performances. There’s an amateurish element to their performances that feels more like reality than inexperience, on the actor’s parts. Considering most, if not all, of the leads have a background in the “mumblegore” horror film movement this is not surprising. Their relatable qualities resonate, allowing the film to get away with, perhaps, more than it should.
However, it is the final act that elevates The Sacrament, from some of its more tired trappings. The sheer desperation in so many of the characters comes to a head as the film draws to a close. From early on, it is abundantly clear how this film is going to end, but that doesn’t make the imagery of it any less traumatic. Perhaps most notable is, when one of the leads stumbles upon a dying boy, the boy asks, “Are they going to heaven?” Of course, the child dies in Jake’s arms before he has a chance to answer him. The Sacrament taps into that desperate need to belong and that desire to believe in something bigger than one’s self. West paints this desire as something entirely human, but ultimately, pointless.
While Ti West’s latest film sometimes finds itself biting off more than it can chew and relying on the supposed stupidity of its leads to keep them around for the real horror, his third act is so well-executed, the audience may be willing to forgive a lot of its faults up until that point. West has consistently delivered a compelling finale to his movies, although The Sacrament, at times, struggles to make it there. However, once it does, it’s not likely to leave the forefront of your mind any time soon.