Ti West’s skillfully graphic and occasionally scary retelling of the Jonestown Massacre is a cute little B-picture that ultimately does a horrid disservice to actual history.
Either writer/director Ti West just recently discovered the details of the infamous events of Jonestown on November 18th 1978, or he is relying on the fact that audiences for his newest movie, The Sacrament, may not be familiar with them. The details of The Sacrament match the details of Jonestown in several parallel regards. A group of Americans have sold all their worldly possessions and moved, at the behest of a sunglasses-sporting “Father” figure, to a remote plain in South America where they intend to live out their days in a placid, self-sustaining commune. The communes (both the real one and the fictional one) are marked by similar signs, and guarded by similar armed sentries. The head of Jonestown was none other than pseudo-Christian cult leader Jim Jones. The head of Eden Parish is known only as “The Father,” and is played by an actor named Gene Jones.
I never thought I would see the day when Ti West would disappoint me. After the masterful slow-burn horror films The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers, it seemed that West had hit his aesthetic stride, making humorous horror films that were simultaneously flip and terrifying. I didn’t see Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever, so I can’t account for that one. Here, West has taken the exact setup of Jonestown, and set it in the modern world. The result is rushed, assumptive, and kind of a letdown. West still has his filmmaking chops, but I can’t fathom what he is getting at here.
Reporters for VICE Magazine, the real-life NYC-based hipster rag, have been invited to Eden Parish to interview The Father, and talk to one of the reporters’ sisters. The reporters are played by A.J. Bowen, Kentucker Audley, and mumblecore luminary Joe Swanberg. When they arrive at Eden Parish, they are granted one interview, and creepy things hang in the air. There is a creepy mute little girl (and isn’t there always?), a few quiet dissidents, and a lot of singing and swaying and praising of their hippie lifestyle. Bowen keeps looking for the loophole in the cult – who pays for all this? Were you coerced into joining? Do you miss the big city? Why have you forsaken urban comforts for agrarian struggle? – but the cult members seem to be happy to be there all around (those dissidents notwithstanding). Since we, the audience, know about Jonestown, however, we know that the poison Kool-Aid will have to be introduced eventually.
And poison Kool-Aid there is. Not 24 hours after the reporters’ arrival, the cult begins preparing for mass suicide. There is not much of an explanation for this, and the rushed plummet into bloody hysteria feels contrived and confusing as a result. The cult complains that “outsiders” will eventually bring armed usurpers, and other people (who exactly?) begin shooting at them, but there hasn’t been enough backstory or basic logical (or even illogical) leaps to lead to the scary stuff. The audience only knows – through vague cultural osmosis if not actual study – that pseudo-Christian cults in South America commit mass suicide via poison Kool-Aid. So that’s what the characters in the movie do.
Setting this film in the modern day was a mistake. Sure, being able to include a real magazine like VICE lent to a whiff of verisimilitude – it’s the kind of story VICE would cover – but in 2014, everyone knows about Jonestown. Wouldn’t the characters in the movie see the exact parallels? Would The Father really dress and talk exactly like Jim Jones? Would his final sermon sound just like Jim Jones’ final sermon? Indeed, the details of the actual massacre were so much more shocking and horrible than anything in the movie, I wonder why Ti West didn’t make a straightforward biopic rather than just a run-of-the-mill mockumentary. At the end of The Sacrament, an on-screen legend indicates the number of dead. I won’t reveal that number, but I will say that the number in the film is actually far, far smaller than the number of people who actually died at Jonestown.
I appreciate certain details about The Sacrament. For one, it’s a found-footage film that shot by actual in-film cameramen, so the shaky-cam dizziness and amateur theatrics intrinsic to the found-footage genre are mercifully absent; there’s a dramatic reason to always be holding a camera. And the “film everything” philosophy that is usually a part of these films is actually cleverly played with in one scene. I also really loved Gene Jones as The Father. He was slimy, charming, convincing, and alluring. He had the bluster and the creepiness of a genuine cult leader. Jones’ scenes are excellent.
Sadly, the film itself is rote and maddeningly without interpretation. It exists so West could film an extended sequence wherein a cult poisons themselves. That’s all well and good from a visceral perspective, but, well, I needed more.