Restaging the 1978 Jonestown massacre for a present-day suspense movie is by most definitions tasteless, although The Sacrament infuses the past with ghoulish immediacy.
The film’s shopworn premise —a documentary crew nervously investigates the “Eden Parish” commune — nonetheless crackles to life once these newcomers meet the cult’s enigmatic leader, “Father” (Gene Jones). With basilisk charm, Father takes charge of a confrontational interview, masking threats with kindness. Later, as he drips honeyed words into the ears of his flock, the magnetism of Jones’s performance makes the outcome all too plausible; like a tender grandpa, he convinces them to assist in their own murders. (“Suicide” seems inadequate when gunmen hang at the periphery, ready to shoot anyone who balks.)
Meanwhile, the doc crew are separated and must somehow reunite and escape.
At the end, a title card announces that 167 people died in Eden Parish. It feels obscene, this commemoration of the deaths of made-up people in the face of the slaughter at the real Jonestown.
And yet those deaths, 918 in all, suddenly seem more real, and more agonizing, than they were as mere history.