Rated R | Time: 1:40
The mass suicide of Rev. Jim Jones and his Jonestown cult must seem fantastical, like something straight out of a horror movie to those too young to have any memory of the story.
So that’s what director Ti West (“The Innkeepers”) turns it into with “The Sacrament,” a modernized / fictionalized account of a charismatic preacher and the people who follow him to a new way of life in some remote corner of an unnamed Caribbean basin state.
It’s a “found footage” approach to this story. Three outsiders, two of them with cameras, visit and by their mere act of visitation threaten to cause this “paradise” to unravel.
Patrick (Kentucker Audley) is a fashion photographer who has gotten this odd letter from his junkie sister. She’s cleaned up and “found” herself, thanks to this community she’s joined. He should come visit.
Even though that community has now moved to an undisclosed location reachable only by a mysterious, secretive helicopter pilot, Patrick agrees. And since he has ties with a New Age “immersionism” journalism enterprise called Vice, he’ll bring along skeptical reporter Sam (AJ Bowen, “You’re Next”) and photographer Jake (“Drinking Buddies” actor-director Joe Swanberg). There just might be a story in all this.
They discover a village where the old and the young live together “free, as God intended” according to a voice on the public address system. Artists and hood rats, the abandoned elderly and small children have carved a community out of the wilderness and found hope in their lives.
They owe it all to “Father,” a folksy-homespun old man, the voice on that PA system, played by Gene Jones, who was the convenience-store owner in “No Country for Old Men.” Father rails, ever-so-gently, about racism, poverty and imperialism. And he gives the “Outsiders” the hard sell.
Patrick spends all his time with sister Caroline (Amy Seimetz, also from “You’re Next”) and seems to be kind of won over. Jake is just photographing folks, and Sam, a bit put on his guard by the sometimes fearful members of the cult, accepts what he’s being told, if not quite at face value.
And then they’re handed a note.
“Please help us.”
West is plainly relying on an audience with no knowledge of Jonestown or what happened there, because for all his efforts to pointlessly update this story and fictionalize it, those efforts don’t cover his tracks. He even has Gene Jones wear Jim Jones-style sunglasses, day and night.
The performances are effective enough, and the writer-director makes the most of that first jolting moment — Jake and Sam being handed that note. They’re surrounded by true believers, some of them armed with AK 47s. There’s only a small helicopter coming to pick them up in the morning. And here is a child, pleading for rescue. That’s a deadly dilemma and drives home what happened in Guyana 36 years ago.
West either needed to come up with a truly modern spin on this mass hypnosis / cult thing, or come clean and admit whose story he was telling and stick to the facts. “The Sacrament” has only graphic shooting / immolation and poisoning Hollywood effects to recommend it. The characters don’t earn our empathy. There’s little pathos.
It is horrific without delivering the punch or punchlines of a horror movie, a formula guaranteed not to satisfy either the historically minded or the horror fan.
(At Screenland Armour.)
| Roger Moore, McClatchy-Tribune