For indie film, ‘Sacrament’ takes too literal an approach

The odd thing about “The Sacrament” is how straightforward it is. The ingredients for this film include a hot young horror director, a batch of indie-scene heroes and a subject that revolves around an isolated cult group.

Given all that, I kept thinking the movie would develop twists on our expectations. But no, West and co. stick to a fictionalized portrait of one notorious cult event: the 1978 mass suicide at Jonestown, Guyana.

In that bizarre incident, about 900 followers of a crackpot named Jim Jones killed themselves (and each other) at their compound in Guyana. Jones talked them through the lethal process after a congressional delegation visited the site to investigate reports of abuse. California congressman Leo Ryan and other visitors were also killed.

The movie’s new story employs the “found footage” approach. What we are watching is presented as the record of three journalists visiting a remote Mississippi commune. A photographer (Kentucker Audley) has been concerned about his sister (Amy Seimetz, from “Upstream Color”), a devoted cult member.

Traveling with him at the behest of Vice magazine are an editor (AJ Bowen) and videographer (Joe Swanberg). We’ll see the experience through their eyes, as the initially normal-looking settlement begins to reveal spooky children and secret notes containing the words “Please Help Us.”

The first hour is all build-up. There’s a fine sequence, at night, of an interview with the slow-drawling cult leader, a man called Father. He’s creepily played by Gene Jones, a little-known actor featured in a single unforgettable scene at a gas station in “No Country for Old Men.”

Ti West, the creator of “House of the Devil” and “The Innkeepers,” cheats a few times with the found-footage format, but the visualization of the compound is eerie and convincing.

The movie’s hand-made cred is strong; Swanberg, Seimetz and Audley are all indie directors themselves. And yet West doesn’t have much new to add to the real-life Jonestown story. If you’ve seen the documentaries about that strange tale, “The Sacrament” will remind you of the facts, especially as it reaches its climax.

Some of the Father’s pronouncements are similar to current libertarian, anti-government opinion, but that’s about it for new wrinkles. The film feels as though it were made by people who had recently heard about the Jonestown massacre and thought it would make a good film subject.

Maybe if you’ve never heard of Jonestown, this will be a revelation. But for everybody else, the strongest feeling you’ll get is the sense of déjà vu.

“The Sacrament” (two stars)

A “found footage” style account of journalists visiting a cult commune that strongly resembles the real-life Jonestown. Director Ti West gets the indie feel right, although the movie doesn’t really add new wrinkles to its source material, however fictionalized it is.

Rating: R, for violence, language

Opening: Friday at the Grand Illusion in Seattle.

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