TIFF Review: 'The Sacrament'

Those who say digital cinema's democratization may not be an entirely good thing have a new Exhibit A for their argument. Ti West's pointless new film "The Sacrament," an exercise in talking loud and saying nothing, isn't just bad, it’s infuriating. It wastes the talents of a number of fine performers and squanders the good will West earned from his extremely entertaining horror-comedy "The Innkeepers" and stylish 80s tone poem "The House of the Devil." Put bluntly, there's just no excuse for this.

We open in faux documentary form. At the offices of Vice Magazine (whose gonzo style of immersion journalism is hyped in a title card) Sam (AJ Bowen) explains how buddy Patrick (Kentucker Audley) has a sister that's disappeared after falling in with a new sobriety group. It is in an undisclosed location in an unnamed country so Sam and cameraman Jake (Joe Swanberg) decide to tag along when Patrick goes to visit.

After a mysterious helicopter ride they are met by nervous men with guns. When Patrick's sister Caroline (Amy Seimetz) approaches she's able to smooth things over and allow everyone into the compound - a large encampment called Eden Parish. It takes about thirty seconds before Caroline drops a reference to "Father," we hear a too-soothing voice over a loudspeaker and learn of donations to the collective. It's clear we've got a Jonestown situation about to happen here. Still, it takes a full forty-five minutes to get this confirmed, and "The Sacrament" eats up the clock by basically watching these Vice journalists at their job, talking to people about why they came to Eden Parish. The film lumbers toward an uninteresting and inevitable conflict and has no energy because this entire endeavor lacks the spark of the "real."

Even though this is inspired by actual events from 1978, "The Sacrament" merely goes through the predictable motions of what "one of those crazy cults is probably like - and does so without any creative specificity. My extremely hazy memories of the 1980 TV movie "Guyana Massacre: The Story of Jim Jones" offer more insight into the troubled people who devoted their lives (and savings) to a demented religious leader.

"The Sacrament" picks up a bit when we meet "Father" (Gene Jones), a sunglasses-at-night, pot-bellied man with a southern accent, greeted by his followers like a rock star. The central set piece is a staged interview between "Father" and Sam, a rather inelegant way in which the characters get to blurt their positions. Once the drums of Kool-Aid come out, the film finally turns to action, but good luck caring about any of these characters. Each of these actors do their best, particularly Seimetz, but other than flopping around in the grass they aren't given all that much to do. It's far more interesting to play the found footage game of "wait, who's got the camera now?"

"The Sacrament" ends with "facts" about the fate of Eden Parish, which led to a bit of derisive laughter in the screening I attended. I, for one, was stunned that this movie had the audacity to think that we'd want to maintain the charade past the fade to black.

SCORE: 1.5 / 10