Hollywood was not especially interested in the close alliance Harvey Milk forged
with the cult leader and duly appointed San Francisco Housing Commission Chairman
Jim Jones, lest it spoil some perfectly sanitized hagiography. We will still
have to wait for that part of the historical record to hit screens. However,
genre auteur Ti West tackles the Jonestown legacy without whitewashing the
Socialist ideology of its founder with his horrifying-but-not-really-horror The Sacrament (trailer here), which opens this
Friday in New York.
all we know, we could be in Guyana. This undisclosed developing country is home
to Eden Parrish, a socialist religious commune maintained by “Father” and his
followers. One of them happens to be Caroline, the “troubled” sister of the
well heeled Patrick, who happens to have several good friends at the Vice Media
network. Sensing a good story, Sam and his cameraman Jake accompany Patrick to document
his reunion and hopefully score an interview with Father. Of course, Caroline
insists everything is totally fine, but she cannot wait to introduce her
brother to some of the commune’s single women—thereby separating him from his
Sam has his sit-down with Father, but it is a frustrating experience. Stymied by
the John Goodman-esque cult leader’s slippery rhetoric and spellbinding
cadences, the reporter is ready to admit defeat, until terrified cult members
start secretly approaching him for help.
faces an obvious challenge, since just about everyone, except apparently Gus
Van Sant, knows exactly how Jonestown ended. On the other hand, knowledge of
what is coming and the uncertainty of whether we really want to see it keeps
the audience on pins and needles right from the start. Indeed, the scenes of
Sam and Jake sneaking through the darkened compound are just extraordinarily
exactly found footage, per se, The
Sacrament is still shaped by the look of field reporting. Mercifully, the
action is always clear and easy to follow, with little of the shaky cam distortion
to be had, even when Jake is running for his life. The vibe of Eden Parrish is
also so spot-on, one almost wonders if production designer Jade Healy had a
captive crew of cultists to build it for real.
West’s ace in the hole is undeniably the ironically named Gene Jones
(previously best known for No Country for
Old Men), who delivers a massively chilling, truly Oscar-worthy performance
as Father. Frankly, this could have been a take-it-to-a-new-level turn for A.J.
Bowen, who is otherwise terrific as Sam, but when Jones throws down, he utterly
overwhelms everything and everyone else on-screen.
Thanks to the mesmerizing Jones, The Sacrament vividly depicts how a
strong, sociopathic personality can dominate weaker followers. It is a lean, tight
thriller that feels uncomfortably true to history. Recommended for West’s fans
and those fascinated by the psychological dynamics of cults, The Sacrament opens this Friday (6/6) in
New York at the Cinema Village.
Labels: Jim Jones, Movie cults, Ti West