A few weeks ago I was roped into seeing The Sacrament in the cinema. I’d enjoyed Ti West’s House of the Devil and at the time of my agreeing to go I had unsurprisingly forgot all about his 2011 effort The Innkeepers. I was boozing the whole way through which allows me to get my disclaimers in if the more cultured members of our two-person readership turn on me for my brutish analysis of a modern American horror classic. I’ll no hold my breath about that but.
I thought the first third of the film was by and large good. The interview scene with Father was the strongest scene in the film, substituting obtuse verbal foreshadowing with sinister silence in the form of media manipulation and filibuster. The interviewer manages to get next to no information from Father during his interview and when, back at his cabin, he makes excuses about the ‘crazy energy’ during the interview I thought I understood Ti West’s choice to feature a Vice magazine film crew and catalogue their journalistic ineptitude. Or, at least, I was encouraged by the interview scene that, despite a choice of protagonist that really got my back up, the film had some decent ambitions.
There was only really one part of the first third that annoyed me while watching. The Vice crew interview two pretty stereotypical young black Americans who have little to say for themselves beyond stock references to a gang past, violent communities and praise for the (white) Father who saved them. The camera man then asks to play basketball with them. What follows is a 20 or 30 second montage (designed to forward the idea that the compound is a paradise) wherein the white and middle-class Vice cameraman absolutely destroys them at basketball. Beggars’ belief. Given my personal opinion of Vice magazine and their contributors, an alien invasion on an international level would have felt more realistic to me than the prospect of a deep sleeping power forward badman directing the Vice journalistic gaze. I realize my anti-Vice prejudice is coming into play here. Regardless, the point is that this interview features an extremely archetypal Hollywood-trope in its screening of young, black, working class males. The point where West decides to deconstruct this stereotype is when it comes to a ‘positive’ aspect of the stereotype. ‘Physically positive’ is a more accurate way of putting it as it figures into a larger network of on-screen discrimination which uses black physicality-as-entertainment as a foil against which white intellectualism is cultivated. West deconstructs the archetype at this point and upholds the rest. The function of this is to paint the white, middle-class, Vice magazine contributor as superior in every way to the two subjects of the interview: economically, intellectually, and physically and so on.
Now as I’ve said, I was on the drink and perhaps my understanding of what followed was coloured by the bad taste left in my mouth by the above and a chronological reading of the film is absolutely out the window now. I think by one third of the way through, directly after the interview there had been two visions of how the film could go: the interview with Father and the interview with the two shite basketball players.
During the interview scene with Father, and the party that follows, the call-and-response preaching style and the gospel music at the party are both recognizable within the context of Hollywood as having black southern origins and a majority of the congregation appear to be working class. The propaganda and brainwashing of Father is something that enlightened middle-class Vice magazine contributors are immune to but something that working class people are likely to fall prey to. In the film this is ultimately statistical data and there is very little in terms of character depth or explanation and exploration of how and why people ended up there, or of the act of indoctrination itself – all of which seems like obvious territory to be explored by the documentary team. Perhaps what I’m calling West’s failings are actually his success in capturing the journalistic ineptitude of Vice.
The crowd that tries to leave in the Vice chartered helicopters are held back by fellow members of the congregation and armed guards. Father gives a speech – and a pretty uninspiring speech from my front-row pew in a different type of congregation – and convinces everyone to drink the poisoned Kool-Aid. I feel like I must have been mad wae it and missed something at this point. The congregation goes from wanting to escape captivity to committing mass suicide at Father’s instruction in next to no time and the divide between those wanting to leave and those trying to keep them there seems to be totally smoothed over. Incredible! West seems to be condemning the gullibility and folly of a type of spirituality that we can definitely recognize as ‘southern’, populist, and probably even working class. There is a clear divide between our heroes the middle-class vice sceptics and the hysterical religious element. In this compound, partitioned away from the rest of the world, there exists a dichotomy between the enlightened and the unenlightened so to speak. The last woman standing is the doctor, a ‘woman of science’ rather than a woman of faith, a woman set apart from the hysterical U-turns of the superstitious congregation. Her suicide is not prompted by Father’s words but instead by a Damascus moment where she finally understands what she has been a part of and endeavours to redeem herself through suicide note repentance: ‘what have we done?’
The real weakness of this is twofold. Father’s speech which prompts the mass-suicide is a lot less effective than the earlier interview where he took narrative control away from the interviewer. His big speech feels idiomatic, archetypal, and staid. The response – particularly from those who were moments earlier trying to leave – seems disjointed. Secondly, very little depth is given to any of the characters who comprise the congregation. The result of this is that the congregation seem two-dimensional: essentialist stick-figures with the sole function of facilitating and ham-fisting a stunted theme of religious hysteria versus stoic middle class agnosticism.
Despite the immense shiteyness of Father’s mass suicide speech essentially collapsing any legitimacy the film may have had, the weakest scene in the film is when two of the Vice crew confront Father two-on-one. One of them is sitting on a chair with his arms tied behind his back but he is not tied to the chair. The other is standing across the room from Father unhindered. Father, an elderly and heavyset man, is sitting unarmed. For some reason they don’t rush him. They sit and watch him slowly remove a loaded gun from a box on the table and (luckily for them) shoot himself. Why wouldn’t they rush him and batter him? I was pretty drunk by the end but I’m 90% sure they’d totally abandoned the found-footage format by this point too which is pretty funny.
Low integrity, low level interest, high number of beers. Probably no the most incisive review you’ve read this year.