Dir: Ti West
Star: Joe Swanberg, AJ Bowen, Gene Jones, Amy Seimetz
My obvious question is, why make a film so obviously based on the Jonestown Massacre, without ever mentioning the Jonestown Massacre? West, who also wrote it, went 99% of the way towards something like Guyana: Cult of the Damned, but then basically pussied out. Instead of Jonestown, we have “Eden Parish”, a commune in the middle of the jungle overseen by its leader, universally referred to as “Father” (Jones). Two reporters for Vice, reporter Sam (Bowen) and cameraman Jake (Swanberg), go to investigate, because one of the members is Caroline (Seimetz), a sister of their friend Patrick, and a recovering addict. She has written him in glowing terms about how Eden Parish has changed her life for the better. He is unconvinced.
As soon as they arrive, things seem “off”, with armed guards patrolling the perimeter. Though Caroline is friendly, and agrees to facilitate an interview with Father, things still seem suspicious. A resident slips the reporters a note asking for help, and tensions rise around the compound. The next morning, a number of residents want to leave, but when Sam and Jake go to their helicopter, their pilot is shot, and all hell breaks loose, as they flee into the jungle. If you know the story of Jim Jones, you will be well aware of how things go from there. Father’s followers commit mass suicide by drinking poisoned Kool-Aid, with the reluctant gunned down instead.
This shouldn’t be a spoiler, since the film hews so closely to the Jonestown source. In his role as Father, Jones absolutely looks, sounds and has the mannerisms of the man whose surname he shares, and it’s chilling. Once things kick off, there is a raw and visceral feel to proceedings. I’ve heard the Jim Jones death tape, and it’s disturbing enough; this is like a live-action reenactment of it. To get to that point, however, it could seem sluggish, especially if you are aware of the source material. The most startling revelation to me, was discovering Vice were around in 2013. Vice NEWS was founded that December, but the company as a whole dates back to 1994. This being the main thing I learned from watching the movie, could be relevant.
That said, the presence of the Vice brand is an interesting one. While it adds a certain sense of authenticity to proceedings, it also implies a certain, specific bias. When Sam breaks with journalistic protocol and starts figuring out how many people can accompany them on the copter out, it destroys the brand’s carefully crafted illusion of neutrality. [Once journalists stop being observers, they are no longer journalists. They’re activists] The efforts to make it seem “real”, while in pursuit of an officially fictional narrative, just one heavily based on fact, leave West twisting like a pretzel. He has to try and balance all these incompatible forces, pulling in different directions, and the net result is something interesting in parts, but which feels lacking in integrity.