Is there a prequel to the new indie “Holy Ghost People” that we should see beforehand? Maybe a television show? It’s the only reason we can possibly engender any sentiment for the overfamiliarity shown to certain characters at the start of the film. The very first scene of this southern gothic thriller finds a man disoriented on a couch in his trailer, nursing bruises and a hangover. When he is on his two feet, he stumbles into a dark-haired girl cavalierly getting out of the shower, his shower, with the door open. When she teases him, there’s playful erotic heat, and it feels like the opening to a classic noir.
This thread of temptation between the two of them is roughly abandoned as we learn their stories. He’s Wayne (Brendan McCarthy), a former soldier, now a broke and alcoholic nowhere man who wakes on unfamiliar furniture. And she’s Charlotte (Emma Greenwell) a recovering addict with a secret, a sick mother and a wayward sister, baggage she intends to pursue further. He’s got wheels, and she wants to go for a ride, and if you were plotting this a little tighter, you could write it yourself.
Except that he’s absolutely soaked in blood from the previous night’s bar fight, like he flat-out murdered someone. He tells her to get the hell out. And then she starts narrating! What cinematic language is this that director Mitchell Altieri is employing? “Holy Ghost People” looks great, moves well, and features relatively intriguing auterist touches that suggest Altieri is one to watch. But as the story pairs the duo on a road trip to Sugar Mountain, not a single moment of it convinces. Sugar Mountain ends up being a small religious commune located in the backwoods, run by a Christian b.s. artist named Billy (Joe Egender). This plainclothes pastor, a more handsome Giovanni Ribisi-type, has this congregation eating out of his hands. It’s not distracting that he’s clearly playing up the Word of the Lord while dressed like an indie rocker. It’s distracting that the church is too theatrically lit, the extras are too theatrically committed, the wardrobe too clean, the floors pristine. Altieri tries his hardest to convince us that this is basically Mars, but at least there’s convincing life on the red planet.
Like many smaller films, “Holy Ghost People” is being released this weekend in an edited form from its festival showings. Apparently the narration has been trimmed considerably, which is a surprise, because it’s still pervasive. It’s disorienting that the film is basically told from Charlotte’s perspective, when she’s the person keeping secrets from us as well as Wayne. It’s not even really clear why Wayne needs to be such a part of this story, as the church is apparently keeping Charlotte’s sister from leaving. It would be fine to have Wayne as a broke outsider in way over his head in helping this strange, sexy young woman. But we never know enough about him, and the film keeps not-so-subtly casting doubt on Charlotte’s words: does she really have a captive sister?
Ultimately, the picture becomes an old-fashioned Bible Belt actioner, a shift towards genre that works on its own, but is tonally a peculiar place to take the events of the film following a string of several shocking and not-so-shocking revelations. By the time there are guns, angry mobs, and climactic fisticuffs, you wonder who the film is for. Certainly not churchgoers: the congregation is accompanied by ominous music and Billy is shot from below to emphasize his rule over these people. What little we hear from them is either expository or clearly villainous: points, however, for casting an actor named James Lowe as Smilin’ Bobby, a soft-spoken churchgoer with an insistent, toothy grin that he cannot shed, no matter how hard he tries. Either it’s tremendous face-acting, or Lowe is eternally ready for the camera.
Greenwell is a find, a tough girl that’s equal parts Scarlett Johansson and Clea Duvall. She’s got a grin that means danger and a voice that sings temptation. And McCarthy has the sort of tall-shouldered masculinity that makes you think he’s destined for stardom. Egender, who has a pivotal role as the chief villain in this picture, doesn’t work quite as well; there’s something a little off, something too broad, the acknowledgement of a layer over a layer. When he finally physically relaxes himself, he still looks uncomfortable, a thick chest jutting out of weak shoulders and a soft chin. In a better movie, you’d be compelled to know Billy’s secrets. In this film, it just feels like the filmmaker sending mixed signals. [C-]