In the thirty-six years since Jonestown we have been left with just as many questions as we have answers. Though the fascination with the mass suicide has persisted over these years, film has not focused its lens on these tragedies. In Ti West’s THE SACRAMENT he explores Jonestown, through a very close fictional approximation of the People’s Temple settlement, and the events directly preceding the deaths.
THE SACRAMENT is a found footage film. Rather than being shot on cell phones like CLOVERFIELD or surveillance cameras like PARAMORMAL ACTIVITY, it is closer to [REC] and THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT in that a professional camera crew set out to capture one thing, but end up finding something much more terrifying. The footage is meant to be a VICE News special. A VICE producer, Sam (AJ Bowen), finds out that one of their photographers, Patrick (Kentucker Audley), has a sister who lives on a commune abroad. The exact location is never specified, but through the beginning sequence of the film we see that it is not an easy journey for them to get there. Sam and Patrick bring along a cameraman, Jake (Joe Swanberg) to help capture their investigation of the commune. Everything seems to be going just fine, that is, until they try to enter the commune.
They are greeted by a pair of guards with machine guns who seem a little too eager to use them. All that we know of this remote community is that Patrick’s sister has defied her troubled past and now seems to be thriving here. She invited him and his colleagues there to show them all of the good that their leader was able to accomplish away from the negative forces of society. When the sister, Caroline (Amy Seimetz) arrives at the gate to explain their arrival to the trigger-happy guards, all seems fine. But what should have been a heartwarming sibling reunion shifts to a darker, contentious mood.
Inside the compound, though, it seems as though the visit is back on track. The grounds are rustic, but lovingly constructed. All of the folks living there have chosen to follow their leader, Father (Gene Jones), to the middle of nowhere to build their utopia. Free from racism, drug abuse, and filled with the glowing love of their Father, everyone in their artificially constructed society seems to have found paradise. Sounding too good to be true, Sam and Jake take to interviewing and exploring while Caroline and Patrick try to make up for being apart for so many years.
Though THE SACRAMENT never claims to be the story of Jonestown, the visuals in the film indicate that it is a direct retelling. The idyllic compound looks exactly like the pictures from the 1978 crime scene photos. And when the VICE crew are finally allowed to meet and interview Father, under very controlled conditions, Father looks the spitting image of Jim Jones, even down to his aviators and camp shirts. Under the guise of fake found footage, West is proceeding to tell his version of true American horror.
When the situation at the compound comes to a head, the action and casualties take off very quickly. The quick pivot from paradise to claustrophobic death trap is as disorienting as you would expect it to be. Not only was this turn to terror sudden in Jonestown, the sustained chaos in THE SACRAMENT is abrupt to those who were expecting West to present a film that is consistent with his previous films.
West is known as the new crowned king of slow burning horror films. Both HOUSE OF THE DEVIL and THE INNKEEPERS are quiet, slowly developing stories. You spend the majority of the running time in near isolation with a character or two, waiting for something to happen. West is able to balance this inactivity with a heavy atmosphere of angst so adeptly many thought that he had found his niche and was staying in it. But THE SACRAMENT is filled with action and a story that takes off as soon as we are introduced to it.
The group’s suicides begin so quickly that both the audience and the VICE crew are in disbelief of what they are seeing. How could a group of such happy, dedicated folks, who have upended their lives to follow and support Father, end it all so quickly. Looking in to the faces of these characters shows not only fear, but sadness. The momentum of their world, both toward creating a new society and in ending it all, is something that cannot be stopped. They have all succumbed to Father’s wishes and no longer have agency. Up to this point, Father had only done good things for the group, and their blind allegiance to him is finally punishing them. Watching them fall not as individuals, but as a group makes you question if it would be possible for you to get swept up into a similar group as well. Though I would like to think that I would never be susceptible to a confidence man like Father, I do realize that it a privileged position I have, having never hit rock bottom myself. I have never needed a figure like Father to reinvent, and refocus my life. Were I to find myself living like Caroline did before she was “saved,” would I be able to tell the difference between Father and a savior? I hope that I never get to put that situation to a test.
By focusing on mass suicides, and introducing just as many questions as it does answers, THE SACRAMENT succeeds in relaying the complicated nature of Jonestown, even without naming the specific horror that inspired the film.