A clever and thoroughly chilling tale of group psychosis, Ti West’s thriller “The Sacrament” takes its inspiration (and many of its details) from the 1978 events at Jim Jones’ People’s Temple in Guyana.
The film, structured as a found-footage documentary, takes place in the present and uses different names, but it’s the same story: Patrick (Kentucker Audley), a young man worried about his sister’s involvement with what sounds like a “hippie cult,” flies to an unnamed South American location, accompanied by a video journalist (Joe Swanberg) and a camera operator (AJ Bowen). Upon arriving at the primitive, isolated “Eden Parish” compound, they find a diverse group of idealistic followers and a leader (known as “Father,” and played with folksy menace by Gene Jones) who addresses his flock in broadcasts over tower-mounted speakers. Patrick’s sister Caroline (the always-excellent Amy Seimetz) assures the trio that everything is idyllic — “We built heaven here on earth” — but the story quickly turns dark, in every sense.
West, whose previous films include “The Innkeepers” and “The House of the Devil,” knows how to ratchet up tension, and you watch “The Sacrament” wanting to look away; there’s something terribly (yet subtly) off about Caroline’s bright chatter, or Father’s avuncular chuckle, or the intent yet vacant gaze of a little girl.
If you don’t know what happened at Jonestown, this film will shock you; if you do know, it brings an entirely different kind of horror — that creeping-up knowledge that something inevitable and awful is coming, and can’t be stopped. West’s found-footage structure doesn’t always entirely make sense, but it’s easy to forgive “The Sacrament” its flaws. The eerie quiet, near its end, is utterly haunting; a lost Eden, in the sunshine.
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