Relief In Belief;
But Venom Threatens The Herd;
Serpents And Eden.
Another year of Cinetopia has come and gone, and once again I saw some really great films. This one, a debut for Dan Madison Savage and Britt Poulton as co-writers and directors, is as well-acted as it is nerve wracking, and left me with an elevated heart rate and an admiration for the execution.
Walton Goggins plays Lemuel, Pentecostal preacher in Appalachia who demonstrate their faith in God by handling poisonous snakes. They are not well received, but nor are they shook by the outsiders that shun them. Lemuel’s daughter Mara (portrayed beautifully by Alice Englert) harbors a dangerous secret that could undermine her father and their community as a whole, including her best friend Dilly (Kaitlyn Dever). Olivia Colman and Jim Gaffigan play the parents of a young man named Augie, who has left his faith behind and represents Mara’s past as well as her potential future. The push and pull weighs on her soul and that struggle leaves a mark on the screen and carries implications more serous than she signed up for.
The script is certainly not weak, but it is the element that held it back from being a total home run for me. The film is at its most intriguing when dealing with the church itself, and there just aren’t enough of those scenes. Goggins is mesmerizing, using cadence, delivery and theatricality to cast a spell on his believers that is hard to break. The tension inherent in the story because of the daughter’s secret is always there, but shoots up several levels once it interacts with the church. The cast is powerful and did great with the material, but this is a case where an extra 20 minutes could have made a huge difference, especially if a lot of that time was devoted to the film’s biggest strengths.
From a technical standpoint, the film does a lot of things very well. The production design us spot on, giving you every bit the feeling of being dropped into rural Appalachia, every backroad leading down a dark path of ill intentions. Brett Juttkiewicz frames the shots beautifully, toying with bathing sunlight and pitch black shadows in a way that perfectly illustrates the conflict at play underneath the surface. One shot that I especially loved showed Mara observing a river from the bank, a few slight rock formations peaking over the top of the water to disrupt the otherwise calm flow. It’s easy to see what those rocks represent for Mara, her father, the church, or any of the characters in the story. It’s a very adaptable shot that works very well, particularly at the point in the film that it appears. Joshua Raymond Lee’s editing is especially highlighted during the incredibly intense climactic scene, cutting together two very crucial events effortlessly and seamlessly until they reach a fever pitch that had me squirming and looking for an exit, desperate for fresh air.
Faith can come at a cost, especially when it’s one of such an extreme nature. And in this town, that cost may be too high to bear.
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