Ti West is undoubtedly one of the most exciting directors of the American horror new wave. He works intuitively, re-thinking the rules of horror movies within established generic boundaries. While he may be known for his signature slow-burns, the label is actually emblematic of his broader working methods; he’s a thoughtful, passionate artist whose films show substantial intelligence and consideration. The Sacrament (2013), his follow-up to 2012’s The Innkeepers, is a worthy addition to his unpredictable body of work. It’s a modern cult movie (in both senses) which, like its predecessor, seizes on current socioeconomic concerns and filters them through genre tropes.
The Sacrament looks like a found footage piece, but West has advised audiences to think of it more as a mockumentary. With this in mind, the usual trappings seem far less grating. The set-up involves three journalists for hipster bible Vice travelling to an unnamed island to investigate a community set up under the auspices of the mysterious ‘Father’ (Gene Jones). Photographer Patrick’s (Kentucker Audley) sister (Amy Seimetz) lives in the commune and has invited him to stay and see life there for himself. His two co-workers Sam (AJ Bowen) and Jake (Joe Swanberg) ride along to document for the mag. Thus, The Sacrament sees West seize upon the political nihilism so prevalent in contemporary America. A mistrust of the establishment is a key part of the community’s raison d’être.
The leaders have pounced on the widespread sense of disillusionment with modern life; urban decay, technology and addiction. The paradox isn’t lost on West, and it’s clear that, with the guns and tyranny, the people have substituted one form of America for another. The approach itself even feels up-to-the-minute; the visitors represent the young new media who are interested in apolitical documentation of events. Their confrontation with ‘Father’ represents a clash of ideals not only morally and ethically, but in terms of they way they view journalism in the modern age. West is concerned with how the inhabitants were misled. There are frequent momentary pauses in which the journalists take time to reflect on the events unfolding around them.
It’s an unconventional technique in such a film, but it prompts the audience to engage and think about why certain things are happening. It’s a picture shrouded in melancholia and, while the final act is satisfyingly horrific, it’s also painfully sad. West’s focus on character pays emotional dividends whilst allowing him to hit the requisite genre notes without losing any of The Sacrament’s substance. The director has said that his next film will be a move away from horror. If that’s the case, he’s certainly set the bar for any novices who follow his blazed path.
This review was originally published on 20 October 2013 as part of our extensive London Film Festival coverage.