As a viewer, I’m immeasurably fond of the ‘found footage film.’ As a critic, I tend to be far more accepting of this narrative format than most online media types, and that’s because I think – so far as the American studio and independent network is concerned – it’s one of the last forms of storytelling that lends itself to the kind of visceral rawness necessary to tell good in-your-face tales. Granted, the herky-jerky-ness of the camera trickery can be a bit off-putting at times; still, I’m willing to buck it up, glance away to get my balance, and sweat it out so long as I’m enjoying the ride.
That’s especially true when I’m looking down the video-barrel at the frightening sights and sounds coming at me from THE SACRAMENT.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters. If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
From Metacritic.com: “The Sacrament follows two Vice media correspondents as they set out to document their friend’s search to find his missing sister. They travel outside the United States to an undisclosed location where they are welcomed into the world of Eden Parish, a self-sustained rural utopia comprised of nearly 200 members. At the center of this small, religious, socialist community is a mysterious leader known only as Father. As their friend reunites with his sister, it becomes apparent to the newcomers that this paradise may not be as it seems.”
As much as THE SACRAMENT tries hard to be about issues of faith (as opposed to organized religion, which it only takes small swipes at), it really ends up being a story about how easily some of us – maybe even the best of us – can be duped by the immortal wolf in sheep’s clothing that is Father. Dressed like a Third World dictator but sounding more like any streetwise pastor, the man communicates with his followers regularly via his revival-style sermonizing as well as his compound’s public address system. At all times, his voice is soft, gentle, and mellifluous. At all times, his manner is welcoming, cajoling, and pacifistic. In his private moments, as well as those suggested by only those closest to him, the man indulges in some very unchristian vices indeed.
Into this fold comes three very different men – ‘outsiders’ as they are called by members of Father’s flock – and they each arrive with very different expectations. One is searching for his sister Caroline (Amy Seimetz, recently from UPSTREAM COLOR); one is expecting to expose a possible cult; and one is simply doing his job as a cameraman. Separately, they’ll each begin to question what it is they’re seeing right in front of their eyes; and, as the film-in-process progresses, they’ll each voice reservations about Father’s bold little venture. Together, they’ll realize as the layers are peeled away that – as is often the case with cults of personality – nothing is ever what it seems.
THE SACRAMENT truly only flirts with the ‘found footage’ format mentioned above, and that’s largely because this footage isn’t ‘found’ in much the same way as other films of this variety work. Instead, what emerges is a frightening mockumentary (without all of the usual laughs supplied by those features) that’s been updated in post-production with music, graphics, and the usual documentary fare. This isn’t to say that it’s any less effective; rather, it works on its own level incorporate elements of different storytelling techniques. This story probably couldn’t have been told any other way – certainly not without sacrificing its impact – but it could’ve had a bit less melodramatic music for several key sequences and nothing would’ve been sacrificed. (If you’ll pardon the pun.)
THE SACRAMENT (2013) is produced by Worldview Entertainment and Arcade Pictures. The film is currently in theatrical distribution. It is rated R for violent images, language, and brief drug use.
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. While it’s not entirely accurate to describe THE SACRAMENT as a ‘found footage film,’ it still certainly goes without saying that its narrative structure incorporates all of the same narrative strengths and/or weaknesses for that format. Instead, I’d classify it as a faux documentary that properly immerses its viewing audience into a nightmare while it unfolds in front of the unsuspecting web journalists who are there to capture Hell in all of its frightening detail. Why? Well it’s mostly because the film incorporates an always lot of musical cues that clearly indicate all of this isn’t going to end well nearly each step of the way.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Magnet Releasing provided me with an online manner of viewing THE SACRAMENT (2013) by request in order to complete this review; and their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.