Like so many films at SXSW, I walked into Holy Ghost People utterly blind and not knowing at all what to expect. For the majority of the film’s running time I was handsomely rewarded – this is a well shot piece of work with an intriguing premise and several amazing performances. I was really digging this tale, steeped in the world of Appalachian snake-handling churches, as a sort of Martha Marcy May Marlene meets The Vanishing hybrid. It shows a remarkable restraint and the aesthetic is authentic enough to make you feel like you’re actually in this world. Unfortunately, a series of questionable decisions towards the end of the film diminished some of my goodwill.
Holy Ghost People starts out intriguingly when drifting alcoholic Wayne [Brendan McCarthy] wakes up, bloodied and hungover, on his couch. In the shower is a beautiful stranger Charlotte [Emma Greenwell - whose soulful determination is one of the film's biggest assets] who, once she emerges, makes damn sure he’s going to pay her back for saving his ass in a bar fight a few hours ago. The favor she requests? To accompany her to “The Church Of One Accord” – a religious cult compound atop a remote Appalachian mountain – in search of her sister who disappeared there.
The film has a poetic, lyrical voice-over that feels a little out of place here, but otherwise it’s smooth (and occasionally exhilarating) sailing for sometime after this. Director Mitchell Altieri does a nice job of not only establishing the geography of the compound, but making it feel lived in and real. You can almost smell the place and the faux peacefulness its selling. It also doesn’t hurt that Joe Egender (who also co-wrote and produced the film) turns in a truly electrifying* performance as Brother Billy, the enigmatic leader of the compound.
Sadly, the film shifts gears for its last act in a manner that feels out of character for the film we’ve come to know and enjoy for the past hour or so. It’s not that Holy Ghost People goes totally off the rails, but it teeters dangerously close. Wayne gets into some righteous shotgun justice that distracts us from the resolution of the film’s central mystery. And the voiceover, which once alternated between engaging and irksome, veers into complete irrelevance – telling us things as we’re watching them happen without deepening the context. I’m not a stickler about narration, in fact I feel like I welcome it more than most of my fellow critics. But it has to be done right and here the poetic Terrence Malick vibe they’re going for just muddies the tone of the film. If Altieri wants to play with this sort of thing, he should save it for a different movie and cut the vast majority of it out of this one entirely.
Overall, I’d recommend Holy Ghost People with a few reservations. At the screening I attended, they mentioned that this cut was only 6 days old and they were still toying with it. If they could lose most of the narration and trim some of the incongruous action during the film’s climax, those reservations would diminish greatly.
*I rarely use the word “electrifying” out of a fear of sounding like Peter Travers, but I feel it’s appropriate here.