Somehow, Hollywood was not especially interested in the close alliance Harvey Milk forged with the cult leader and duly appointed San Francisco Housing Commission Chairman Jim Jones, lest it spoil some perfectly sanitized hagiography. We will still have to wait for that part of the historical record to hit screens. However, genre auteur Ti West tackles the Jonestown legacy without whitewashing the Socialist ideology of its founder with his horrifying-but-not-really-horror The Sacrament (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.
For all we know, we could be in Guyana. This undisclosed developing country is home to Eden Parrish, a socialist religious commune maintained by “Father” and his followers. One of them happens to be Caroline, the “troubled” sister of the well heeled Patrick, who happens to have several good friends at the Vice Media network. Sensing a good story, Sam and his cameraman Jake accompany Patrick to document his reunion and hopefully score an interview with Father. Of course, Caroline insists everything is totally fine, but she cannot wait to introduce her brother to some of the commune’s single women—thereby separating him from his Vice companions.
Soon Sam has his sit-down with Father, but it is a frustrating experience. Stymied by the John Goodman-esque cult leader’s slippery rhetoric and spellbinding cadences, the reporter is ready to admit defeat, until terrified cult members start secretly approaching him for help.
West faces an obvious challenge, since just about everyone, except apparently Gus Van Sant, knows exactly how Jonestown ended. On the other hand, knowledge of what is coming and the uncertainty of whether we really want to see it keeps the audience on pins and needles right from the start. Indeed, the scenes of Sam and Jake sneaking through the darkened compound are just extraordinarily tense.
Not exactly found footage, per se, The Sacrament is still shaped by the look of field reporting. Mercifully, the action is always clear and easy to follow, with little of the shaky cam distortion to be had, even when Jake is running for his life. The vibe of Eden Parrish is also so spot-on, one almost wonders if production designer Jade Healy had a captive crew of cultists to build it for real.
However, West’s ace in the hole is undeniably the ironically named Gene Jones (previously best known for No Country for Old Men), who delivers a massively chilling, truly Oscar-worthy performance as Father. Frankly, this could have been a take-it-to-a-new-level turn for A.J. Bowen, who is otherwise terrific as Sam, but when Jones throws down, he utterly overwhelms everything and everyone else on-screen.