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'Jonestown' recounts descent into madness

Jim Jones started his church in Indianapolis, then moved it to California, and finally to Guyana. (SEVENTH ART RELEASING)

"Nobody joins a cult -- you just join people you really like," says one of the survivors in Stanley Nelson's documentary "Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple." Harrowing and inexorable, the film recaptures the progressive insanity of Jim Jones and the hundreds of worshipers in his thrall, and it certainly gives you willies to last for days. As good as it is, though, "Jonestown," which will air on PBS's " American Experience" in April, never quite burrows to the mystery at its center. You leave with more questions than answers.

Perhaps that's to be expected, given that Jones' s religious utopia ended with the largest mass suicide in history: 909 men, women, and children who chose death rather than watch their leader face the consequences of his murderous actions. It has been 29 years; the headlines have faded to the joking phrase "drinking the Kool-Aid " to signify checking your willpower at the door. "Jonestown" brings it back with a sickening kick.

Nelson and writer Marcia Smith sketch in Jones's Indiana youth, interviewing childhood acquaintances who recall his twin fascinations with religion and death. From Indianapolis, the young preacher took his flock to Ukiah, Calif., in the mid-1960s and, a decade later, to San Francisco. By then it was a tellingly unique mixture of African - American church ladies and young hippie idealists; surviving film footage shows services that are half gospel get-down and half prehistoric rave.

As the congregation grew, so did Jones's delusional sense of self. "Some people see a great deal of God in my body," he preaches , and he made sure his female faithful saw that body. Nelson interviews a handful of Jonestown survivors, including author Deborah Layton, who tells of forced sex with Jones. Dazed, she says she went along with it because he was a supreme being; dazed, his flock gave over their earnings and homes to the Peoples Temple. When the press started digging dirt, the church fled en masse for the jungles of Guyana.

There, Jones built Jonestown, a millennial Eden where paranoia could grow like kudzu. There US congressman Leo Ryan arrived in 1978 on a fact-finding mission that turned ugly when Temple members passed him notes begging to escape and the preacher's security forces moved in. And there, on Nov. 18, Ryan and four others were shot dead trying to board their plane, Jones gathered the faithful, and nearly a thousand people went to their death.

Why? "Jonestown" works diligently around the fringes of the madness without fully bringing it into focus. What exactly did Jones and his believers believe in? Beyond a hopeful, warped sort of Christianity, it's not clear. How did this earnest young preacher engineer the groupthink necessary for total domination, especially in the early days? How did the different groups within the Temple interact? Nelson sticks to the timeline as though holding on for dear life.

The last half hour of "Jonestown" is almost unwatchable. Video footage of the assault on the congressman's delegation gives way to audio of Jones exhorting people to "die with a degree of dignity" as children shriek in the background. Survivors describe family members and infants expiring in their arms, and you ask yourself in horror : for what? So Jim Jones could enact his private End Times? Nelson points to the heart of darkness but never comes close enough for us to guess.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. For more on movies, go to boston.com/ae/movies/blog.

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