A fashion photographer (Kentucker Audley) receives a letter from his estranged sister (Amy Seimetz). She's been living in a religious commune located far from the trappings of modern civilization. He travels with a news team (A.J. Bowen and Joe Swanberg) to visit her in a secluded village known as "Eden's Parish." They soon realize things aren't quite as tranquil as they seem on the exterior. The visitors' suspicions grow as they make their way through the settlement interviewing its residents and meeting its leader who's referred to as Father (Gene Jones).
“The Sacrament” is certainly Ti West’s crowning achievement as a director and writer. He successfully builds up its suspense by slowly revealing things are not as perfect as they seem in the little community known as Eden’s Parish. Knowing what the outcome of the story is going to be in this case makes the journey towards its conclusion even more nerve-wracking.
I’m not a huge admirer of the “found footage” movement made popular as of late by “Paranormal Activity” and its clones. The concept works for “The Sacrament” because it’s done in a professional documentary style that gives it a network news feel versus the sensation of some guy running around with a camcorder videotaping stuff. That’s not to say scenes don’t get jumpy or shaky at some points. However, they’re sequences that make sense in the grand scheme of things.
Another aspect of “The Sacrament” that makes it feel so genuine is its casting. It’s hard to immerse yourself in a movie and fully detach when you see well-known actors like Brad Pitt or Amy Adams battling zombies or vampires onscreen. The trick that works for West’s independent thriller is having a bunch of virtually unknown faces onscreen that make it impossible to associate them with other projects they’ve starred in. The viewer can actually disconnect from a preconceived entertainment mindset and trick themselves into believing what they’re seeing is authentic.
Gene Jones portrays the enigmatic and sinister Father. If the actor ever gets another job after “The Sacrament” it will be a miracle. He’s too perfect in the frightening role of the charismatic leader of “Eden’s Parish.” Even when he’s being interviewed for the “Making of” featurette for the DVD, I couldn’t stop thinking about the atrocities he instigated in the movie.
“The Sacrament” is rated R for disturbing violent content including bloody images, language and brief drug use. Although there’s talk of sexual activities, there’s nothing depicted onscreen. What we do get is extremely unnerving scenes of people convulsing and dropping dead while foaming at the mouth. These include children which, as a father, bother me more than anything else. My stomach was in sickly knots through the entire climax of the film.
I didn't find "The Sacrament" to be hostile towards religion or organized church. What I took from it was we all must be cautious and listen intently to what our leaders might be saying between the lines. If what you hear doesn't sound right, it probably isn't. Always investigate something before jumping into it.
The DVD version of “The Sacrament” features some enlightening bonus material. They include four featurettes entitled “Creating ‘The Sacrament:’ Revealing the Vision,” “Working with the Director: The Ti West Experience,” “Preparing for Takeoff: Behind the Scenes Helicopter Sequence,” and “AXIS TV: A Look at ‘The Sacrament.’” Director / Writer Ti West and actors A.J. Bowen and Amy Seimetz provide audio commentary for the feature.
If you’re looking for a movie to help steer people clear of getting involved in religious cults or communities, “The Sacrament” will no doubt get the job done. For all intents and purposes, it’s a condensed version of 1980’s “Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones” for a new generation. Director / Writer Ti West hits all the high and low points of that three hour plus film in an hour and a half. The abbreviated running time adds a level of franticness and panic to an already discomforting visual experience that leaves the audience unsettled and efficiently agitated at what they’ve just witnessed.