The ascendancy of found-footage style to the forefront of mainstream horror moviemaking has been a mixed bag. For every pleasant surprise like V/H/S (2012) there’s an insufferable piece of shit like The Devil Inside (2012). But the reliable profitability of the approach and its conduciveness to creative versatility indicates that the trend isn’t stopping any time soon. If the rumors are true, it won’t be long before we have a found-footage Friday the 13th flick.
The Sacrament, a new film from horror auteur Ti West, joins the growing found-footage chorus, following a small group of hip “immersion journalists” as they investigate a Christian cult holed up in an anonymous third world country. One of the guys has a sister who ran off to join the cult, and these intrepid truth-seeking souls sense a story. Here, West makes the strange choice of using the VICE brand and adopting its specific video journalism style in telling his story. Perhaps this was an attempt at embellishing the film’s aspirant realism. Or maybe it’s simply a thinly veiled promotional device. Either way, it doesn’t work.
To make the film look like a VICE documentary West applies all sorts of post-production frills to the film, like textual exposition, theatrical music, and a whole lot of editing that doesn’t make any sense under the film’s set of internal conditions. For instance, conversations are edited such that they were clearly filmed with two cameras when only one was available to the characters. The script acknowledges this inconsistency in passing, when a photographer character is encouraged to use his camera’s “video feature” to get some extra shots, but such an obvious post-hoc band-aid doesn’t satisfactorily ameliorate the film’s nagging technical carelessness. In fact, West himself noted,
This was a really hard movie to edit. I had an idea of how every scene was going to be put together, but the nature of how I shot it in this “doc style” opened a can of worms for a million options. And because the subject matter was serious and not overtly genre, I took a lot of time to get it right. It was hard. It was time consuming.
West is a good film editor, and the problem is not with any lack of visual continuity. But such obvious post-production luxury distances viewers from the film’s reality and undermines any legitimate sense of danger or dread that viewers might have otherwise enjoyed. As a result, the movie hovers awkwardly between found-footage and mockumentary styles, achieving neither the visceral naturalism of the former or the structural clarity of the latter.
On the whole, the script is poorly conceived. At one point, the writing shows some promise by at least hinting at the plausibility and complex reactionary appeal of cultist ideology. Late in the second act, one of the characters admits he’s “turning the corner” on the place, indicating his willingness to sympathize with the members and their very human reasons for joining. But West quickly reveals that he was never actually interested in turning that corner himself, quickly proceeding to all the usual clichés you’d expect out of a movie about a religious cult.
As the film rushes haphazardly to its inevitable tragedy, narrative logic completely deteriorates and it becomes clear that West was all the while preoccupied with delivering the film’s morbid climax. His films tend to work this way, with about seventy minutes of intense buildup blossoming into a sadomasochistic pinnacle at the end. Indeed, the “big scene” to which the story’s events lead is not without power. But the rest of The Sacrament is left so woefully undeveloped that the ending just feels cheap. At the end of the day, we have a script similar to Kevin Smith’s Red State (2011), but lacking in even that peculiar misfire’s basic creativity and ambition.
The cast is of limited help, delivering distractingly patchy performances throughout. On the one hand, Gene Jones and Amy Seimetz (playing the cult leader and errant sister, respectively) both shine with confused passion and an authentic sense of yearning. When either of them is on screen, viewers are treated to some insightful acting as they alternate between endearing sweetness and rabid zealotry. But lifeless, shallow performances from Joe Swanberg and A.J. Bowen deprive the film of the dramatic core it needs to be a successful picture. Both Swanberg and Bowen turn out acting that looks effortless, and not in a good way.
As an ardent fan of Ti West’s contributions to contemporary horror, it’s hard to describe how disappointing The Sacrament was for me. House of the Devil (2009) was not just the best horror film of the past two decades, it’s one of the most perfectly constructed suspense films I have ever seen. Hitchcock could not have done better. His follow-up ghost-flick The Innkeepers (2011) still haunts me at night, and his contribution to V/H/S stands out for its gorgeous narrative ambiguity and brilliantly subtle sense of technique. Whatever happened on this most recent project, it is painfully out of step for Ti West as an artist.
It’s no secret that West has become increasingly associated with the “mumblecore” faction of independent cinema in the last couple years. His appearances in Joe Swanberg’s All the Lights in the Sky (2012) and Drinking Buddies (2013), as well as his cameo in Adam Wingard’s smug and un-clever slasher skit You’re Next (2011), indicate that he’s been spending a whole lot of time with these dudes.
The minimalist philosophy and its oft-misguided reliance on aesthetic understatement are clearly rubbing off on him, but I’m not sure that it’s a good thing. The Sacrament mostly looks like it was shot and written by a less-experienced Joe Swanberg. It does not look like a Ti West film. Ultimately, West places far too much trust in the dull realism that so-called “mumblecore” has to offer, abandoning his rare talent for filmic atmosphere and formal technique in the process.
Not to put too fine a point on this, but Ti West may want to put down the mumblecore kool aid, and get back to making films informed by his own unique approach to cinema.
The Sacrament is currently available through on-demand services like iTunes, and will be in theaters June 6th.