Wednesday, 9 July 2014

The Sacrament

West, Ti Westdesperado, rough rider, no you don't want nada. None of this, gun in this, brotha runnin this, buffalo soldier, look it's like I told ya. Any damsel that's in distress be out of that dress when she meet Ti West.... Sorry. 
Yeah... Vice Magazine...
So, if you hadn't guessed, Ti West is back with his latest effort - The Sacrament, this time under the competent supervision of Eli Roth. Framed as a documentary by New York based hipster 'immersion journalism' crew Vice, A J Bowen plays the lead role of Sam, the main driving force of the film crew. Their latest project spawns from photographer Frank (Kentucker Audley) who tells the tale of his sister Caroline (Amy Seimetz) whom, after a struggle with drug addiction, joined a Christian commune in Mississippi which collectively fled the country to start a new society based on ideological ideas of self reliance, tranquility and isolation. 

With cameraman Jake (Joe Swanberg) in tow, the gang board a plane to a mystery location before being whisked off in a helicopter to find themselves greeted by armed (possibly) locals. Their investigations delve into the lives of the cult members and their charismatic leader 'Father' (Gene Jones) and all seems well with a congrigation of content but obviously fragile individuals. It comes as no surprise that when cracks begin to show, all is not as innocent as it first appears. 

I know this is a horror blog,
but fuck me that's cute!
I've been a staunch defender of Ti West ever since I was first enamoured by House if the Devil. It is a stance which has been pretty hard to defend at times, especially with the The Innkeepers being slow and uneventful enough to be outrun by a sloth that's been hit with a tranquilizer dart. I still held steadfast to a belief that there was talent just under the surface, waiting for just the right project in order to reveal itself again. The Sacrament is very nearly that project. It is a really intense story containing the atmosphere and tension Ti is known for, but with a pace and level of action not seen before. 

As a 'found-footage' film it benefits greatly from the same advantages as The Frankenstein Theory in that, being a mockumentary, it allows for picture quality and cinematography beyond the normal found-footage fair, the excuse being the pretence of having been filmed by and experienced an capable film crew. 

There is also a lot more than just the camera that makes this the most cinematic found-footage film I've ever seen. The sub-genre is known for it's understated, mumblecore acting style which seems oddly but welcomely absent here. The acting is unashamedly 'acted'. There is a definite intention and style to the delivery of the dialogue, it doesn't feel improvised and the characters revel their moments on camera. There are also lots of cinematic cues and tropes, for example walking out of a hut to the sound of a relevant loud-speaker announcement, jump cuts and atmospheric music.

A perfectly framed shot... What a
lucky coincidence
The mockumentary style works well and explains a lot of the editing but as with many earlier cases it left the cinematography bound by found-footage conventions. I was watching the whole film wishing there was an extra 'non-camera' following the crew from a non-diagetic perspective. One shot in particular, inside one if the huts, is a wonderfully crafted piece of film. The colours, composition and framing are all perfect. Yet we are asked to believe that this just happened to be the result of a character, who is not a trained camera operator, placing the camera randomly on a nearby shelf focused perfectly on the impending action. With suspensions of disbelief this large why do so many film-makers no have enough confidence in the audience to take it that one step further and drop the found-footage idea all together. 

As for the storyline I initially found myself picking out a few plot holes, but on reflection felt that it holds up pretty well. The wonderfully charismatic Gene Jones plays the Father character as a brilliantly manipulative leader who has the ability to charm anyone who doubts him, yet with a dangerously menacing undercurrent which lies just below the surface. It is Gene's portrayal that helps side-step a few questionable plot-holes. His egotism and vicious intentions reveal themselves and answer questions about why he is so easily willing to unexpectedly resort to very extreme actions. He at one point tells Caroline "Take the camera. I want you to film this, it's important." which wouldn't make sense if it wasn't for the incredibly subtly implied suggestion that "A place without violence" was never Father's plan at all.

I would join the Cult of Quimby
It doesn't pick on the religeous as characteur extremists. All the cult members feel well rounded and have reason to be so willing to abandon all their worldly possessions to fulfill wild promises. Most notably an old lady who we meet tending a vegetable garden tells of how lost she felt after the death of her husband. Like the most slimey of politicians Father has the ability to spin any situation in his favour and blind side those around him. He picks his congregation by using his personality as much as they pick to follow him. 

The Sacrament is a film about manipulation. It is a warning of running away from your problems and trusting in miracle cures from charismatic charlatans. It is not perfect but it is the first film in a while that genuinely had my stomach on knots due to the foreboding sense of impending doom which is impossible to ignore. It is not perfect, some of the acting is a bit lacking and the found-footage constraints are still annoying, but it is damn good!

I still believe there is more to Ti West and am genuinely excited for his next project. The Sacrament is a seriously impressive step in the right direction. I have heard many people crediting that to the suspected influence of Eli Roth, I don't know how true that is but I can definitely see what they mean. If it's so then hopefully that influence will continue for the rest of Ti West's career.

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