Ti West is a master of methodical pacing, and his stories unfold at a precisely measured clip. “The Sacrament,” his latest film, is no exception, building ominously before taking a horrifying turn, and while it’s far from West’s most traditionally scary film, it’s easily his most accomplished.
Like many other films at this year’s festival, “The Sacrament” is a found footage piece, documenting a VICE crew’s infiltration of a cult compound. Sam (AJ Bowen) is incorrigibly inquisitive, slowly starting to understand the appeal of the compound, and his cameraman Jake (Joe Swanberg) is a lot slower to warm up to its charms. Amy Seimetz plays Caroline, the sister of their friend Patrick (Kentucker Audley) and their ticket into the compound, which is led by a charismatic enigma named Father (Gene Jones).
Ti West plucked Jones from a bit part on FX’s “Louie,” instantly recognizing him as the man for the role, and Jones tears into West’s script, playing Father with equally reassuring and chilling notes. Father is a grandstander, using buzzwords and mythmaking to manipulate his followers. It’s an outstanding performance from Jones, and one that anchors the film as things spiral into a disturbing climax.
AJ Bowen is solid here, helplessly curious and empathetic, and while Joe Swanberg’s role as the cameraman means he stays off-screen for the most part, he makes the most of his limited screentime. Amy Seimetz gives a magnetically daffy performance, maintaining a gentle warmth even as she’s performing some heinous acts in the film’s finale.
There’s a clear tipping point in “The Sacrament,” a moment when things take a decided turn towards the sinister, and it’s a perfectly subtle, chilling moment that pulls back the curtains on the compound. “The Sacrament” doesn’t have a ton of scares in the traditional sense, lacking any ghosts, zombie, or vampires, which makes its relentless finale all the more unpleasant. West stages a climax that’s aggressively disturbing, all the more so because it plays out in broad daylight, making for a hugely intense experience.
It bears to mention that, while “The Sacrament” is riveting, taut, and bluntly horrific, its approach to some familiar subject matter is in fairly bad taste, trivializing some very real, very terrible events in a fairly flippant manner. A moody score, unflinching approach, and great performances go a long way towards making the film as gripping and, yes, entertaining, as it is, but its misguided approach gives the film an undeniably ugly bent that’s hard to shake once the credits roll.
Among the other films that played Fantastic Fest yesterday, “Detective Downs”, a film about a PI afflicted with Downs Syndrome, is charming and surprisingly tactful. While it’s a bit overlong, the film’s original concept, strong performances, and a jazzy, memorable score keep it from dragging too much.
“A Field in England,” on the other hand, practically prides itself on its glacial pacing. The story of five men wandering a field in England, eating mushrooms and looking for treasure, plays like a Lars von Trier movie without any compelling parts. While there are excellent elements, especially the screenplay’s relatable, crackling dialogue, the stunning black & white photography, and a rhythmic score, “A Field in England” is mostly interminable nonsense, stretching 30 minutes of story out to excruciating length.
“We Are What We Are,” a remake of a Spanish film that played Fantastic Fest back in 2010, is the rare rehash that improves on its predecessor. In a gender reversal from the original, a family is left in the lurch after its matriarch dies, and eldest daughter Rose (Julia Garner) must step forward to continue the family’s tradition of ritualistic cannibalism. “We Are What We Are” may be a bit dour for the midnight slot, but it’s a fantastically moody work, beating the original for ambition, scope, and commitment to its premise, and featuring roundly solid performances. This Southern Gothic plays a delicate tonal game, and by the time it escalates to an absolutely insane finale, it’s easy to come along for the ride.
“The Sacrament” screens again Monday 9/23 at 4:50.
“Detective Downs” screens again Wednesday 9/25 at 5:45.
“A Field in England” screens again Wednesday 9/25 at 5:00.
“We Are What We Are” screens again Tuesday 9/24 at 11:45.