Sunday, December 21, 2014

2014 At the Movies: Sacrament

Director Ti West has already made a strong name for himself in the horror genre with sterling efforts such as House of the Devil (2008) and The Innkeepers (2011).

But none of his efforts thus far -- save perhaps for the vignette about marital infidelity and murder in V/H/S (2012) -- have proven to be relentlessly bleak. 

Until, that is, The Sacrament (2014), his newest film.

Unlike, his two previous feature films, West’s The Sacrament does not tread into supernatural-styled horror tropes, but instead operates on a frighteningly realistic level.

In short, the film is a fictionalized version of the Jonestown massacre of November 18, 1978, only re-told in modern “found footage” format.

The names and individuals have been altered from the ones that history records at Jonestown, but the screenplay nonetheless hews very closely to the details of the mass suicide/mass murder in Guyana.

Accordingly, The Sacrament unfolds with a frightening sense of inevitability, and the movie doesn’t shy away from every ugly aspect of the hideous crime it depicts: the poisoning deaths of 167 individuals, including children and babies. 

One horrifying scene in the films sees a mother slit her child’s throat rather than contend with a cult leader’s draconian punishment for their disobedience. Another sequence records the agonizing death throes of a likable young teenager who should, by all rights, have a long life ahead of him.

The Sacrament is relentlessly upsetting and dark, in part because it is always clear that this brand of atrocity is no mere fantasy, but a recitation of actual human cruelty and ugliness.  The film will rivet your intention, and is very well-made. In fact, The Sacrament serves as a stark reminder about what can happen when people choose to put their faith in a larger-than-life leader, and not in the levers of a functioning democracy.

The film is timely because we live in difficult times, certainly, and America is starkly divided about the way out of such difficulties, both economic and social.  In its nerve-wracking, point-blank view of a deadly cult that hides its true nature beneath bromides about equality and justice, The Sacrament reminds audience that in the impulse to “escape” our flawed (but functional) culture, we risk the possibility of landing in a place and system that is much, much worse.

“Father had a vision, and we built a Heaven on Earth.”

The filmmakers at VICE, a New York news-magazine -- Sam (A.J. Bowen) and Jake (Joe Swanberg) -- learn from their friend and former subject, photographer Patrick Carter (Kentucker Audley) that his troubled sister, Caroline (Amy Seimetz) has apparently turned her life around in an unusual way. 

Specifically, she has moved out of America all together and into Eden Parish, a foreign commune.  The agrarian society is overseen by the mysterious but beatific Charles Anderson Reed (Gene Jones) -- known as “Father” -- and Caroline has given up all her worldly possessions to be a part of his vision.

Patrick has been invited to visit Caroline inside Eden Parish, and so Sam and Jake decide to go along too, and document on film everything they see inside the community. 

At first, Eden Parish seems a paradise on Earth, an egalitarian society where all people are respected and all needs are met.  The denizens of Eden Parish appear to be delighted to live there, and testify at length about their love for Father, and how he brought them back from the precipice of self-destruction and despair.

On the night of a musical reception and Sam’s tense one-on-one interview of Father, however, a woman and her daughter approach the visitors and hand them a note requesting help. They want to escape.

Eden Parish is not what it seems.

The next morning, chaos erupts in Eden Parish as Father learns that some of his beloved “children” intend to leave on the helicopter with the visitors.  Rather than allow his community to be splintered and separated, Father proposes and executes a final, devastating solution.

“America is coming apart at the seams.”

Jonestown -- the home of the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project -- was the creation of James Warren Jones (1931 – 1978).  The commune was located in Guyana and consisted of over 900 citizens at its height.  Though The Sacrament’s corollary, Eden Parish, houses less than 200 citizens by comparison, there are nonetheless several notable parallels between history and the film’s reality. 

Specifically, the cult leader in both cases imposes mass suicide, or “revolutionary suicide” upon his people, including children.  That suicide comes in the form of cyanide, which has been laced into cups of Kool-Aid or red punch.

Similarly, The Sacrament accurately reflects the final hours of the Jonestown commune. The end came for Jones and his acolytes soon after a Congressional delegation, led by Congressman Leo Ryan and consisting of “concerned relatives” came to visit Jonestown.  In that case, the guests were met on the night of the arrival with a party, or musical reception, at a pavilion…but one denizen slipped the visitors a note asking for help in fleeing the cult. 

In The Sacrament, the media comes to Eden Parish and VICE’s arrival spurs its final chapter.  But again visitors are handed a note following a party, petitioning for their assistance. 

Similarly, in both cases, the cult leader cultivates an atmosphere of intense fear and paranoia about the outside world, making it seems that the inhabitants of the commune simply have no choice but to die.

Jones was famously recorded exhorting revolutionary suicide in a forty-five minute “death tape.”  That tape has been re-parsed here, in the film, as a video recording.  We watch in great detail as Father spins his tale of the war that will follow the visitors’ return to America, and how the only thing for the people to do now is lay down their lives in protest.

Finally there have been hints about Jim Jones over the year that his madness resulted, at least in part, from his deteriorating physical condition. He may have suffered a series of strokes, and The Sacrament implies the same….at least a bit. Apparently, Father has not been feeling well of late and is on medication, according to Caroline.  Late in the film, however, we see him snorting cocaine, so we can’t be certain if Father is genuinely ill, or simply stoned out of reality.

The scariest thing about The Sacrament is not the close attention to the details of the Jonestown massacre, perhaps, but rather the fact that, at times, Father seems to be, well, persuasive, in his speeches.

He has built a society free of racism and poverty, just as he asserts, and one away from the temple of avarice and materialism that has been erected here in the U.S.  Even the idea of “going back to nature” and tuning out of 21st century technological life is enormously appealing…at least briefly, to many healthy, sane people.

Father even lands some well-directed hits on the gossip-mongering, slanted modern mass media, and there’s some part of us -- even at our most rational and logical -- that is alarmingly susceptible to this kind of talk, this kind of rabble rousing. 

I suppose that’s the movie’s point.  It is easy for many rational individuals to “hook” onto one point of agreement with a cult leader like Father, and then miss the forest for the trees.

But Father’s apparently rational “progressive politics” -- as Sam terms them -- cloak a deeper and darker truth. 

It’s easy for a society to ditch racism or inequality when everyone is already at the lowest level, cowed into obeying every edict of an apparently benevolent dictator. In other words, all men, women and children are “equally” subjugated at Eden Parish, without the freedom even to come and go as they see fit. 

The equality here is the equality of the subjugated.

And secondly, we see as well that Eden Parish -- for all its natural and apparent social glories -- is not self-sustaining. Instead, denizens send letters back home to family members getting them to come to the commune.  Once there, these families are brainwashed or otherwise convinced to hand over their life’s savings to Father, in furtherance of this Eden.  In essence, Father is running a scam to support his society.

The Sacrament proves clever and worthwhile as a work of art because it doesn’t offer up platitudes or black-and-white assessments of Eden Parish.  Indeed, if it were a battle between plain black and white, or obvious good and evil, nobody would have ever gone to live in Jonestown, or come here, to Eden Parish.  Instead -- as it is present in all life -- there is nuance to consider.

During one scene, for example, an African-American teenager testifies to the fact that if he stayed in America in poverty -- his previous environs -- he might not even be alive today. That life would have proven toxic to him. He is incredibly convincing in his assertions (and sincere in them, to boot…) and yet he isn’t seeing the full picture, as he finally begins to suspect.

In short, Father is able to espouse meaningful words about racial equality and the sins of materialism, but he is not on the up-and-up, and his charismatic delivery of his philosophy means that, essentially, the majority of his flock can’t resist him.  The people have handed him complete control, and he betrays their trust. He has delivered them to nature, and to an equal society, but it is a society that steals from others, and that demands total obedience.

Considering this line of inquiry further, The Sacrament seems to concern our willingness, as a species, to turn away from a problematic but operative system in favor of a fairy tale…without actually examining the specifics of that fairy tale’s narrative.

The Sacrament is neither sensationalist nor gratuitously gory, but it is authentically disturbing.  The found-footage technique is here occasionally troublesome, and you may stop and wonder why certain people continue filming events, especially after a camera hand-off prior to a self-immolation.

But in broad terms, West oversees a grounded, respectful matter-of-fact approach that enhances our sense of reality in the situation, and there’s the sense at times that he even limits the narrative’s boundaries so that it doesn’t go out of bounds, or risk defying overtly belief.

So, in a way, you already know how The Sacrament is going to end. The end is predictable. But the (dark) achievement of the film is that we see, in that closing chapter, how a madman justifies his actions, and cloaks them in religion, politics, and rhetoric. 

For a very long time, there’s been a debate about Jonestown massacre and nomenclature.

Was the massacre “mass suicide” or “mass murder?” 

After watching Ti West’s The Sacrament, I know I definitely fall on the “mass murder” side of things. If you assume direct responsibility for every decision in someone else’s life, you are also responsible for the nature and time of their death.  That is precisely how Father behaves in the film, and I suspect how Jim Jones did as well. 

Disturbing and unsettling, The Sacrament is thus the bleak portrait of a man with a vision. He builds a would-be Heaven on Earth…that quickly goes straight to Hell.

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