THE SACRAMENT (2013)
Running Time: 95 mins. Rating: x Stars/5 Stars
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Ti West
Distributor: Magnet Releasing/Magnolia
Cast: Kate Lyn Sheil, Joe Swanberg, Amy Seimetz, AJ Bowen, Gene Jones, Kentucker Audley, Shawn Parsons, Derek Roberts, Donna Briscoe, Talia Dobbins, Shaun Clay, Dale Neal
If you seek the classic study of brainwashing, look no further than John Frankenheimer’s incredibly tense film THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE. In a movie ahead of its time, Russian and Chinese agents program Americans to go back to their own societies, formerly captive people who will kill on command. THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, arguably one of the top ten thrillers of all time, features a performance by Frank Sinatra at the top of his career.
Ti West’s THE SACRAMENT is about brainwashing as well, though it does not feature edge-of-your-seat nail-biting like the Frankenheimer film. How could it? After all, this faux documentary is based on reality, on a situation in Jonestown, Guyana in 1978 in which over nine hundred brainwashed people committed suicide at the orders of the group’s founder and leader. Anyone who reads the paper or watches the news on TV is aware of the unusual events of that time, but then again American millennials, born since 1980, may not be as hip to the actual events. For them, the entire film could be a jaw-dropping surprise despite some amateurish acting by some of the extras in the plot.
The story opens on Sam (AJ Bowen), filmed by Jake (Joe Swanberg), who interviews Patrick (Kentucker Audley) about the fashion designer’s upcoming trip to visit his sister Caroline (Amy Seimetz). Caroline, troubled by addictions, had gone to a remote area called Eden Parish to get “clean,” and appears to be deliriously happy. She waves her arm about a primitive, socialistic “paradise” where everyone is family. For a while the reporters believe her and wish her well, listening to their raucous cheers whenever the group’s leader known as “Father” (Gene Jones) speaks to them over a PA system or during an interview that he has granted to the visitors. But when one woman, through her mute daughter, slips the outsiders a note “please help us,” all hell is about to break loose on this would-be heaven-on-earth.
Some powerful acting by Amy Seimetz rivets attention, a woman who alternates between ecstatic joy and furious paranoia. In fact, given the changes that appear to take place among some of the one hundred sixty-seven followers, we in the audience must wonder why “Father” agreed to the interview in the first place, especially considering his notion that if the U.S. government knew what was going on in the compound, bombs would fall.
Some of the scenes are visually arresting. The view of scores of screaming people eager to get on the helicopter that could take them back to civilization resembles the scene of the U.S. embassy in Saigon in April 1975 when the forces of Ho Chi Minh take over the city to the dismay of those who could be marked for execution. The mass execution planned for, really, no apparent reason (there is not necessarily any threat from the U.S. government) resembles nothing less than the wholesale suicide of nine hundred sixty Jews hiding out on the cliffs of Masada during the first century B.C., all favoring death over surrender and slavery to the invading Roman armies.
Though THE SACRAMENT is produced by horror maven Eli Roth (HOSTEL 2, about businessmen who pay handsomely for the thrill of killing human beings) and directed by Ti West (THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL about satanic ritual), it is more a psychological thriller than an entry into the horror genre. Yet though there are no supernatural forces here, you might swear that some sort of witchcraft is going on, yet it is difficult to see how the obese, sunglasses-wearing-at-night “Father” could have such a hold on these folks.
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