Perhaps we shouldn’t give up on the found-footage gimmick just yet. For the exercise in pseudo-suspense that is “The Sacrament,” Ti West returns to the model that spawned the trend, 1999’s “The Blair Witch Project” (though not the first in the genre, which would be 1980’s film maudit “Cannibal Holocaust”). Like “Blair Witch,” West’s film adds creditability to the premise by establishing the characters who are shooting the footage as legitimate filmmakers engaged in an investigative project that turns out to be more than they expected. By this time, though, for audiences inured to this device, everything that happens is what you’d expect, and the choice of subject and the modifications West has made to the generic conventions don’t add much to the suspense or thrills.
West’s film differs from the “Blair Witch” template in that the footage is never actually “found,” but apparently made it back to the safety of the post-production facilities of the team’s employers, the real-life alternative culture conglomerate, Vice media, where it was edited into the film we watch. So at least one of the filmmakers must have survived, which, though it allows for a polished finished product, does cut down on the suspense.
The crew of would be guerrilla journalists consists of Sam (AJ Bowen), the idealistic interviewer; Jake (Joe Swanberg), the down-to-earth cameraman; and Patrick (Kentucker Audley), a still photographer whose troubled sister Caroline (Amy Seimetz) has skipped rehab and gone off the grid to Eden Parish, a religious commune sequestered in some unknown apparently tropical location outside the US. Patrick gets a letter from Caroline inviting him to visit, and the three see an opportunity for a great story.
Taken by helicopter to an undisclosed location, the three initially are taken aback by the armed guards at the gate, but once Caroline reassures them, they start to interview parishioners whose eyes glow with zeal as they give praise to their new lives, isolated from the evils of modern society, guided by their leader, whom they call Father. An interview with Father, held in front of a menacingly enthusiastic audience of parishioners, does not inspire confidence. Played by Gene Jones, he comes off as a lubricious, overweight mountebank who looks like a clichéd corrupt southern cop and exudes the reptilian charisma of Jim Jones. I’d rather take my chances with Philip Seymour Hoffman in “The Master,” thank you very much.
Nonetheless, Sam expresses a grudging admiration for the ideals of the community, while Jake remains skeptical, and Patrick has been taken away to enjoy the attentions of three nubile virgins. Resigned to the inevitable anticlimax, the viewer does not get taken up with the tragedy, but instead notes West’s skill in narrating the story as he keeps (for the most part) the points of view of the cameras (Patrick’s camera takes video) inventive and consistent. Could West be deconstructing the form? If so, the sacrament performed here might represent the last rites of the found-footage genre.