(2019) Documentary (1091) Alice Englert, Walton Goggins, Olivia Colman, Thomas Mann, Lewis Pullman, Jim Gaffigan, Kaitlyn Dever, Dominic Cancelliere, Annie Tedesco, Bradley Gallo, Katherine DeBoer, Brooks Roseberry, Erik Andrews, Connor Daniel Lysholm, Catherine L. Albers, Kami Amore, Chris Breen, Logan Fry, Christine M. Pratt, Ramona Schwalbach. Directed by Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage
It is said that faith can move mountains, but in the mountains of Appalachia faith is much more than that. Faith is everything; one’s devotion to God must be absolute. There are no other alternatives. In some rural churches, faith is a life or death equation.
Mara (Englert) is the pretty young daughter of Pentecostal preacher Lemuel Childs (Goggins). Lemuel is part of the snake handler sect which requires his flock to prove their devotion to God by allowing a venomous rattlesnake to be draped around their neck. If the snake leaves them alone, fine; that’s God telling you that your faith is sufficient. However, if the snake elects to sink its fangs into you, you’ll undergo an agonizing slow death unless you can fight off the venom. With the help of friends or family praying away, anyone who succumbs to the snake bite does so due to a lack of faith, not to a lack of medical care which the congregation eschews.
It’s a highly patriarchal society in which women are made to wear ankle length skirts, perform roles of cooking, cleaning and child-rearing and to be absolutely submissive to their husbands. They are not even supposed to drive, making this a kind of Saudi America. If the Muslims hadn’t claimed the burkas first, I wouldn’t be surprised if the women of the congregation were made to wear them.
Mara is at an age where she is ready to be married. Daddy has picked out intense Garret (Pullman), a member of the parish and a true believer. However, Mara is kind of sweet on Augie (Mann), the son of local gas station/market owner Hope (Colman) who is known more commonly as Sister Slaughter. She was a bit of a hellraiser in her youth but her husband Zeke (Gaffigan) has essentially calmed her down. As for Augie, he is anything but a true believer; in fact he’s an atheist. His mother tolerates it pretty much as you tolerate the drunk uncle in the family.
Mara and her good friend Dilly (Devers) are inseparable, especially since Dilly’s mom abandoned her in fleeing the church and community which isn’t especially tolerant of free thinkers, particularly among the women. However, Mara is carrying a secret of her own and when it gets out it could rock the entire community to its core.
The feel here is authentic Appalachia; although the movie was filmed in Ohio it feels more like West Virginia. The gorgeous cinematography from Brett Jurkiewicz helps set that particular mood, as does the set design – Lemuel’s church is in a converted barn with only a neon cross to differentiate it from other barns. The life of the mountain folk here are pretty simple and uncomplicated; there are no television sets and things move at a fairly slow place, like the land the Internet forgot.
In fact, one of the drawbacks to the film is that the pacing is maddeningly slow particularly through the first two thirds of the movie. It does pick up speed towards the end, though so if you can sit through the first hour, you should be golden the rest of the way.
However, there’s still the performances of Goggins and Englert to enjoy; the two of them have a real chemistry and they both embrace their roles with gusto. Colman, who is a recent Oscar-winner, sounds a bit uncomfortable with the Southern accent, but she is solid as well as are Pullman and Mann as Maras two suitors. Gaffigan, a gifted comedy actor, shows off his dramatic chops nicely here.
The movie is largely about how far you are willing to take your faith before it becomes unhealthy. It’s hard not to see comparisons between these cultish Pentecostals and modern Evangelicals who seem to be grabbing the headlines lately. The directors respect the faith of the characters here which is nice to see; too often Hollywood tends to be either dismissive of characters with faith, or in the case of Christian cinema, too proselytizing. Some of the snake scenes are pretty horrible to watch and the sensitive sorts might want to take a pass on it, or at least watch it those scenes with eyes tightly shut and a trusted friend to tell you when to open them up again.
I’m not sure why anyone would think that God requires you to prove your faith by taking a rattlesnake to your breast, but some believe that it is so. The movie isn’t going to give you any answers in that direction but it is going to show you characters with strong faith and strong convictions – not to make them look evil, or backward but if anything to remind us that some good people sometimes believe in things that the rest of us might not understand – or accept.
REASONS TO SEE: The cinematography is gorgeous. Englert and Goggins deliver incendiary performances.
REASONS TO AVOID: Moves at a fairly slow and languid pace.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity, an attempted rape and some disturbing violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Lewis Pullman is the son of actor Bill Pullman who memorably played the President in Independence Day and its sequel.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/12/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews: Metacritic: 56/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Apostle
FINAL RATING: 7/10
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