written and directed by Ti West
by Bill Chambers Surrendering once again to V/H/S found-footage mode, writer-director Ti West brazenly co-opts the particulars of the mass suicide at Jonestown, Guyana, abandoning only the names and most expensive details (two planes become one helicopter, for instance, while the late-'70s become the present). The result is a counterfeit film without the element of surprise that also denies the viewer the lurid satisfaction of a true-crime thriller. AJ Bowen, Joe Swanberg, and Kentucker Audley--Austin's answer to the Brat Pack (or the Three Stooges)--play VICE journalists doing a story on Eden Parrish, a hippie utopia/cult compound in NotGuyana. They're guests of Audley's sister (Amy Seimetz, who doesn't, ultimately to her credit, do deluded well), an ambassador of sorts to the commune's snake-oil leader, an ersatz Jim Jones who goes by Father (Gene Jones--no relation, I hope). Playing the role as part Strother Martin, part game-show host, Jones--Gene Jones, that is--hits a home run in his big scene with the comically-outmatched Bowen; if anything comes out of this movie, I expect it will be the career rebirth of Jones, whose handful of memorable appearances prior to this include the gas-station attendant in No Country for Old Men. (West, too, does a pretty good job of transcribing Jones's--Jim Jones's, that is--televangelist rhetoric.) But Jones's starmaking entrance may as well be his exit, as no sooner have the VICE boys landed on Eden Parrish than are they running for their lives, so beholden is the film to the chronology of the Peoples Temple's accelerated downfall. It's West's weakness here that he can't seem to tell a story that doesn't take place over a matter of hours or days, and The Sacrament depicts a tragedy ascribed meaning only by the landmark PBS documentary Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple, which turns out to be an essential primer denied due credit. The poached gravity of the closing title card--"167 people died at Eden Parrish"--is especially galling: no one died at "Eden Parrish," though more than 900 perished in Jonestown's Kool-Aid apocalypse. I can't wait until West makes a movie about the Shworld Shtrade Shenter.
You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.