Review by BILLY RUSSELL
Ti West is one of the most innovative directors in modern horror. If such a word as “auteur” could be assigned to any director with a unique, personal style of storytelling, Ti West would fit the bill. Here’s a fun drinking game: Read a review of a Ti West movie and every time you see the phrase “slow burn” mentioned, take a drink. You will surely wake up in the hospital.
Found Footage is an effective genre of horror that places you, the viewer, in the action of the plot. You are no longer an omniscient third party, you are an active participant. This began, somewhat, with Cannibal Holocaust and laid dormant until 1999 brought us both The Last Broadcast and the phenomenal hit that every independent filmmaker dreams of making themselves, The Blair Witch Project. Found Footage has been so successful that is has branched out to the mainstream and multi-million dollar Hollywood productions utilize the same storytelling style for action and sci-fi.
Ti West meets Found Footage plays out about as well as his previous experiment with it in V/H/S did. Not very well. It plays out like a 90 minute long commercial about Vice Magazine, replete with a member of the crew stating how he just wants to tell a story in a fair and balanced way, dammit! There is nothing wrong with Vice Magazine at all, just as there would be nothing wrong with the characters of the film being employed by The New York Times, but when the characters keep talking about it and stressing their views and hopes for journalism and how that publication is all about reporting the facts, it really takes you out of the moment.
The movie’s opening credits are played to the song “Heartbeats” by The Knife, which is a great song but it fits the movie about as well as beer and jogging. Much of the movie is like that, with a hodgepodge of elements that would work well on their own, or in a different story, but when placed into this context, doesn’t seem to work at all. Gene Jones, for example as Father (the absolute bright spot among the performances), belongs in another film altogether where he would receive more screen time. As is, the characters we do follow as the plot unfolds are just not interesting enough to care much about. Even if they were nasty, rancid characters at least they would be interesting. AJ Bowen, as Sam, in particular is just not a very interesting actor to watch. He’s a capable enough actor and served well in You’re Next, but here he’s reacting to plot elements with either too much panic when none is warranted or with a casual calmness that doesn’t even appear to be human. He often seems to be baffled when the plot makes perfect sense, and collected when chaos reigns.
The Found Footage style is constantly betrayed. In certain scenes where only one camera is present, there are cuts and edits that just would not be possible unless there were at least two cameramen present. There are two cameramen present in the film, but not always together, and dialogue scenes will cut to close-ups without a single beat missing between words in a single sentence. Found Footage just didn’t seem to be an appropriate avenue for telling this particular story—or, more thought and consideration should have been put into what is and isn’t possible for edits and cuts from one person to another. This betrayal of the film’s essential cinematography is just one of many awkward beats that helps remind you that you’re watching a movie and that nothing that happens is of any consequence.
Perhaps the plot itself would be more shocking if the events of what happened at Jonestown weren’t so widely known. The entire set up is leading toward an inevitable conclusion that everyone knows must happen. This in and of itself doesn’t make for bad storytelling. Consider Titanic: Love it or hate it, everyone knew that the ship was going to hit an iceberg and sink, so the movie had to be about something else. The Sacrament has no other agenda other than what’s going to happen in the final reel and makes no attempt to create any other interest apart from that. Unfortunately, the result is a tired retelling without the benefit of focusing on a character as interesting as the Jim Jones surrogate. We have to spend our time with three jaded hipsters who swear by the efficacy of Vice Magazine.
Perhaps, also, the film would have been more interesting had it decided what, exactly, it wanted to be. Had it been a faithful retelling of the Jonestown events, it could have been an examination of the nature of human evil itself (like the TV movie starring Powers Boothe as Jim Jones). Or, it could have been an exploitative piece of trash that at least elicits a response from the audience other than yawns (think Guyana: Cult of the Damned).
Much of the cast is talented and are unfortunately wasted. Gene Jones, mentioned earlier, is the leader of the cult in this movie and he’s fantastic here, as he is in just about everything else he’s been in. He may also be the rare few to encounter Anton Chigurh and live to tell. Amy Seimetz who was also in 2013’s brilliant little Upstream Color does everything that she can to enliven the material and her character but flounders, no fault of her own. Joe Swanberg is wasted on the role of the guy in these kinds of movies who has to keep running back to grab the camera instead of saving his own skin.
Ti West is still a talented filmmaker and I trust that in future projects to come—whether it be in horror or whether he decides to branch off into more “respectable” genres—he will prove his worth again. In everyone’s career, there’s going to be a stinker (Spielberg has many, Tarantino has Death Proof, Coppola has friggin’ Jack, for god’s sake), so the best thing to do is brush it off as an interesting failure that contains a couple good to great scenes amid many terrible ones, and do something better.