Director: Ti West
Starring: Joe Swanberg, AJ Bowen, Kentucker Aduley .USA. 1h 39m
Without any official admission this dramatic found footage movie is obviously based on Jim Jones and the mass suicide that he orchestrated at Jonestown. In all fairness the film gives a fairly accurate playback of the terrible events which occurred in Guyana, it does have a touch of cinematic license but for me, the kick in the gut wasn’t the shocking deaths but instead the failure to really show any respect to the dead. It was never the aim to reiterate the story blow by blow, that’s what documentaries and books are for, instead the movie dives in from a found footage aspect trying to give a fly on the wall view into the largest mass suicides in living memory.
I had missed a bulk of Ti West’s illustrious career as there’s a lot of TV, but he has some really interesting work under his belt including, the solid retro felt horror House of the Devil (2009) and segments in the new cult classics V/H/S (2012) and The ABCs of Death (2012). Generally his attention to detail and fetish for singling out those key nostalgic items and decorations from different eras really cements his films in their chosen year. He’s also not afraid to chuck a camera around to add the very definition of dynamism to his scenes which shoot into top gear constantly.
The Jonestown massacre is a well known smear history of mankind, however if this is your introduction to the tragic story please don’t read too much from this production as it has many inaccuracies but in it’s credit I certainly did feel the right attitudes and atmosphere. Which is about right for a movie, it’s not a documentary but an incredibly creative experiment to try and tell the story from the inside looking out. The premise is that one of the VICE team has a sister who has joined a cult, and just like the real news broadcasting company, VICE loves to get into difficult and controversial stories, he rushes out with a couple of colleagues to cover this story.
Armed with a few cameras and some “hard hitting questions” they believe themselves to be prepared for this big break, on trying to get into the compound they are constantly faced with men with guns, but this warning doesn’t deter them. The free loving cult who worship their leader as a god and call him Father, they seem to be really happy in their lush Eden but the constant guard presence and hourly messages over the loudspeakers from leader rings a few alarm bells to the team, is the multicultural freedom camp really some kind of work camp?
In the sunny sub tropical greenery, the crew film the happy citizens, playing basketball and working in the fields, and there generally is an air of happiness, but darker mild undercurrents really darken all the smiles, especially after Father is ready to meet the Vice guys for an interview. This is a turning point for the movie, Father is played by Gene Jones and this tense interview is the impressive 17 minutes of the movie by far. Jones genuinely comes across like a genuine, well-meaning person who nonetheless was driven to evil by his paranoia. Each word is so cutting and solid, every sentence is warm but a sincere warning. This leaves the team totally rocked but when a little girl hands them a note asking for help, their world really does turn upside down.
Live as one dies as one.
The very unfamiliar scenery and setting helps force the audience feel really out of place, and with everyone acting so strange, like brainwashed robots and most of the cast that you can identify with behind the camera it’s hard to set into this film but it adds a very weird edge. Eli Roth couldn’t wait to be a part of this with Green Inferno in the pipeline, he was in a role of jungle based horrors. The shaky cam approach really works in the later parts of the movie, when the young men are on the run, and the frantic atmosphere is bolstered with some horrific scenes of blood are gore when the Kool Aid chapter is meticulously played out. It’s a violent breakdown which really puts viewers on the edge, as the movie is only loosely based on real events at this tender point in the plot who knows what will happen, technically Ti West and Eli Roth can do anything with these characters now as this isn’t the real story, so it’s game on.
While the whole idea of suicide cults are pretty dark and tragic, it can be a fascinating matter for those true crime fans (like myself) and it’s interesting mostly to find out more about the people involved so having a more authentic Father character with more back story to get into would have bolstered the movie as would the pilgramiage from the USA to Giana, which was all totally ignored. It seems weird starting at the end of the story.
With a million warning signs and just as many bad decisions, the desire to stay and help and report overwrites the urge to run and hide. The Vice crew really struggle to face what’s really in front of them, but in hindsight it’s an impossible situation to get out of, it’s like they are free to roam around the camp and are forced to witness this insanity play out in front of them. It’s a really brave effort but without the blood and gore, shocks and horrors, the film would have easily boiled down to something so bafflingly unrewarding but it’s worth sitting through these luls for the gutsy ending.
R: Hunger (2009), The Colony (2013), The Green Inferno (2013),
L: Cults on Film