Directed by Ti West
Available for streaming on Netflix
A Vice magazine fashion photographer receives a letter from his troubled sister Caroline (Amy Seimetz), living at Eden Parish, a secluded, communal farm run by a mysterious man named Father (Gene Jones). The photographer Patrick (Kentucker Audley), along with journalist Sam (AJ Bowen) and cameraman Jake (Joe Swanberg), are totally on top of what could be a sick-ass story about a creepy cult, so they head to Eden Parish, and bring their cloying, Williamsburg naivete along with them to document this shit (and inevitably, impact and adjust the story). The movie we’re watching is supposed to be the resulting Vice doc. And so, ballsy king of slow-burn horror Ti West (“The House of the Devil,” “The Innkeepers”) uses the popular found-footage horror conceit to riff on the Jonestown Massacre.
But all of West’s movies are about something else (“Devil” is a Chantal Akerman-like focus on small gestures; “Innkeepers,” about the rarefied relationships you develop with coworkers at a crappy job) and before the horror arrives, “The Sacrament” is a sly parody of Vice obsequiousness: Thumping hip-hop unnecessarily scores two inner-city kids praising Eden Parish; a woman with a mute daughter is interviewed so that the crew can get “a mother’s perspective.” This first half feels like a particularly vicious “Portlandia” skit, really.
But we all know how this ends. And following Vice’s exclusive interview with Father, the charismatic creep decides these outsiders are going to expose Eden Parish, and begins prepping the cult, consisting of, for the most part, poor black Christians and slumming-it white hipsters, for the end. With Patrick’s sister Caroline as his capo, Father organizes the mass suicide, which we watch in excruciating detail: people foaming at the mouth, babies injected with poison, reluctant members machine gunned, you get the picture. Wisely, West never tries to “make sense” of the event, he just drowns you in its dread and stays with these characters as they expire, long after most movies would’ve turned away or gone big picture. (Brandon Soderberg)
Directed by David Mackenize
Available for streaming on Amazon and iTunes
Eric (Jack O’Connell) is clearly a prodigy. A violent thug not even out of his teens, he has been moved from a juvenile facility to an adult prison—“starred up” in British penal system parlance. He appears almost psychotic, ready to deal out extreme brutality at the faintest provocation. But there’s at least one prisoner in his new lockdown who might be able to tame him: his father, Neville (Ben Mendelsohn). That is, it must be acknowledged, a premise with more than a whiff of middlebrow melodrama to it.
By the final reel of “Starred Up,” the odor pervades, but the film cuts through any cloying good intentions with a sharp script, shrewd direction, and, most of all, galvanic performances from O’Connell and Mendelsohn. “Starred Up” expends almost no exposition on explaining that Neville has been inside most of his life, and that Eric has suffered as a result. We’ve all seen that movie before. Instead, they settle in and watch as Eric introduces himself to the facility with his fists. Neville starts taking an interest in his son not out of paternal concern, but because he’s ordered by his boss, an oily cellblock drug lord (Peter Ferdinando)—all that violence is bad for business. Yet it’s soon clear that Neville is no more able to function as an effective father than he is to lead a straight life. And that disconnect between what works in prison and what works in life elevates this movie.
“Starred Up” benefits from tight crime-flick plotting as Eric and Neville’s trajectories collide, but it flexes its muscle most in the moments where it’s able to show how profoundly these men are broken, and how they will only cause more damage if they don’t find some way to mend. It’s the best prison film since 2009’s “A Prophet” and, if nothing else, needs to be seen for Mendelsohn, still a well-kept secret despite his similarly potent turn in 2010’s “Animal Kingdom,” and for O’Connell, who should have his pick of roles after this. (Lee Gardner)