Documentary makers Sam (AJ Bowen) and Jake (Joe Swanberg) are alerted to a possibly fruitful new line of enquiry by one of their friends, Patrick (Kentucker Audley), whose sister Caroline (Amy Seimetz) has been suffering an addiction to drugs and alcohol which she has kicked after joining a self-help group. But they believe this is actually a cult and since she has been spirited away to South America on a commune in the jungle there, the likelihood is that she has been brainwashed. Making up their minds to go on a part rescue mission, part news gathering exercise, the three of them book their tickets to the jungle and fly out there - could they be correct? Could there be something sinister going on?
The answer to that would be plain to see for anyone who knew the story behind director Ti West's The Sacrament, a film which proved a disappointment to many of those who thought he was a talent to watch judging by his two previous works in the horror field. The main problem was, and this was the opinion of plenty of those who watched it, that once you knew he had drawn on the real life events of the Jonestown Massacre there were basically no surprises, and whatever different he had brought to the tale was overwhelmed by the tragedy of what had happened, so much so that anything added to it came across as entirely superfluous: it was horrific enough.
In fact, it was so horrific that West could do nothing in his fiction to better it in the suspense and thrills stakes, which gave rise to another question, why bother in the first place? The events were so notorious that if a filmmaker attempted to be even more sickening then it was simply not something that could be achieved, the forced suicides of hundreds of people, nothing less than a mass murder, as part of a twisted religious cult unbeatable in its shock value since it had genuinely happened. What was West trying to prove? That he could be as revolting in a movie inspired by those events as the events themselves? If that was the idea he didn't succeed, as there had been a documentary from the previous decade, titled Jonestown, that put across the horror far better than any made up business would.
Not that West was the first to be inspired by the massacre, as there had been a Mexican effort, Guyana: Cult of the Damned, which more or less did the same thing from over thirty years before, and that was far more disreputable than anything here (in the way of these things, there had been a TV movie too, though that was more a recreation of reportage). It's not as if there was a sense of the film holding back, it was just that anyone who knew of the story would look at this and not only be aware of precisely where it was heading - no surprises here - but also find the additions of shock tactics redundant, such as images of a little girl having her throat cut, a woman self-immolating, or a man shooting himself in the mouth in a Budd Dwyer fashion.
Again, all of these looked like what they were, a try at bringing home the disturbing qualities of the truth while not matching up to it, mostly because the tactics were cheap and that truth was too disgraceful for this to have any effect on its reputation. They used the found footage format to tell their tale, which again failed to be authentic when the camerawork didn't look as casual as intended, too overedited and unlikely to convince anyone that what you were watching was real, not to mention that anyone who had heard the tapes of the massacre would not be impressed by the aping of that here. The film did consider the effect that religion can have in sending its followers down the wrong path, which was fertile ground for debate, but didn't do much with it once the deaths began in spite of Gene Jones' performance as the cult leader which had the right mix of convincing righteousness and creepy insidiousness. This wasn't so much a missed opportunity as it was an unnecessary effort at applying true horror to the strictly fictional variety. Music by Tyler Bates.