Them That Follow
Backwoods melodrama slithers along slowly
Them That Follow (2019)
Directed by Britt Poulton & Dan Madison Savage
Cast: Alice Anglert, Walton Goggins, Olivia Colman
Newbie filmmakers Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage attempt to make their mark with Them That Follow, an unvarnished, unexploitative snapshot of the religious subculture of Charismatic Christians in the rural South. Results are mixed, but the duo show off enough skill in their debut feature to believe that future indie success may be waiting around the corner.
Them That Follow takes us to an unnamed corner of Appalachia and introduces us to its main character, a conflicted young woman named Mara (Australian actress Alice Englert from “Top of the Lake” and “Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell”). Mara’s mother passed away some time ago, leaving her to be raised by her father, who happens to be the protective pastor of a backwoods religious cult full of snake handlers. Thanks to the parishioner or two who has passed away over the years (due to a “lack of faith” rather than an abundance of snake venom, mind you), Pastor Lemuel (Walton Goggins of FX’s “Justified” and CBS’ upcoming “The Unicorn”) has had more than a few run-ins with the local law. This has left him guarded and secretive about his religious practices and his followers tight-lipped and insular.
At first glance, Mara seems like a dutiful daddy’s girl. But she starts off the film by shoplifting a pregnancy test from the country store—an action that forces us to infer she’s not quite as pious as she seems. Mara is already “promised” to thoroughly boring and completely devout churchgoer Garret (Lewis Pullman from “Catch 22” and Bad Times at the El Royale). Inconveniently, she’s actually in love with rebellious Augie (Thomas Mann, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl), who’s given up manhandling snakes and speaking in tongues despite the objections of his (somewhat recently) converted parents.
The occasional creep of international accents aside, Poulton and Savage have assembled an impressive cast right out of the gate. Englert has the fragile, haunted look of a young Ellen Page. Goggins is perfectly cast as the mountaintop preacher, projecting power and menace without ever resorting to pulpit-hammering “fire and brimstone” cliché. (John Lithgow in Footloose, I’m looking at you.) Kaitlyn Deaver, who costarred with Goggins in “Justified,” offers support as Mara’s mousy best friend. Olivia Colman, a serious “get” after winning an Oscar for The Favourite, makes a strong impression as Augie’s worried mother. The most surprising appearance is stand-up comic Jim Gaffigan, who plays Augie’s father. He has so few lines, though, it’s hard to judge his dramatic chops. He doesn’t look out of place, at least.
Them That Follow ultimately lacks the pulpy punch of other backwoods sagas like Winter’s Bone. It goes less for energetic thrills and more for simmering internal conflict. The filmmakers are clearly aiming for a naturalistic look and feel. The languid cinematography lingers often on the shards of sunlight stabbing through the treetops of moss-covered forests lined with artfully fallen leaves. The pacing is measured, the plot points doled out with an IV drip. Characters bite their lips and remain silent rather than vocalize their true feelings. Poulton and Savage deserve some credit for keeping the context real and not twisting this portrait of rural religion into a low-grade hillbilly horror flick. This isn’t an indignant condemnation of someone else’s religion. But what does that make it, exactly?
Unfortunately, there’s just not a lot of complexity to the drama. The fundamentalist preacher’s daughter is pregnant and that’s sort of a no-no. So she tries to keep it a secret. For a while, anyway. Things do ramp up a bit in the final reel, giving it a more or less satisfying note on which to end. But the script feels generally underwritten, giving slight motivation to the various changes in character and ticking off the story beats in the rote manner of a cautionary after-school melodrama. Them That Follow has its moments, thanks largely to a solid cast and an evocative setting. And with a bit more energy and a touch more finesse applied to their sophomore effort, the filmmakers behind it all could end up leaving a cinematic mark.