“A remarkably powerful film.”
Perhaps it’s the bone-chilling speeches I’ve seen Christian scientists deliver to a classroom; perhaps it’s the infuriating conflicts arising lately from the morally bankrupt practice of parents not vaccinating their children; perhaps it’s the intensity of the filmmaking. Likely all three. Whatever the reason, Them That Follow struck me as a remarkably powerful film which, whilst leaving little to the imagination, shines a profoundly necessary light on a real, complicated problem – enough so that its less intelligent elements can be overlooked. What writer/directors Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage have made may not be perfect, but it is certainly a standout at this festival.
Them That Follow delves deep into an Appalachian Pentecostal community that populate an eerie mountain and practice an illegal and profoundly dangerous ritual of serpents. That is, they routinely trap and keep deadly cottonmouth snakes, which they believe can channel the will of the Divine, and drape them over their congregants’ necks. If the snake remains calm, the person must be properly serving the will of the Lord; if it bites and poisons them, they must be somehow astray from His path. The absurdity of this logic is well-addressed in some outstandingly intense, spine-tingling sequences in which various parishioners are put through the ritual throughout the film.
The local pastor, the de facto leader of the area, is played with electrifying fire-and-brimstone passion by Walton Goggins, while the townsfolk who follow him are played with commendable depth and lived-in realism by the likes of Olivia Colman, Jim Gaffigan, Kaitlyn Dever, and Lewis Pullman. Sparking the narrative are Alice Englert, as Mara, the pastor’s daughter, and Thomas Mann as Augie, a young man who has come to reject the church, but remains in love with Mara. Through some unsettling developments, their relationship becomes a warped rural iteration of Romeo and Juliet’s terrible journey, though somehow even bleaker at points than that story of teenage tragedy. Suffice it to say, the community is capable of some serious self-denial, resentment, betrayal, and ungodliness.
It would be easy to dismiss Them That Follow as heavy-handed, unrealistic, too twisted for the good of the story and character development. But the directors explore the absurdity of their practices with considerable depth; to anyone moored in reality, this community is harrowingly rife with irresponsibility and endangerment, but to these individuals, it is their only connection to community, salvation, and acceptance. The fiery expressions of desperation, passion, and anguish that brim just below the surface of many a congregate are well-established and engaging to watch unfold.
World-building aside, however, unfortunately, elements of the filmmaking leave something to be desired, including some unresolved threads and a lamentably abrupt ending that could have benefitted greatly from only a few more minutes, even seconds, of development. In addition, Poulton and Savage’s reliance on extreme close-ups and moody, austere cinematography occasionally smacks of fresh-out-of-film-school ingenuity, yet it rarely detracts seriously from the strength of the setting and performances.
And the cast turns in some truly special performances. From top to bottom, the acting is sharp, uncompromising, and above all, convincing. More so than most in this festival, the performers disappear into their roles entirely. Goggins gets a refreshingly powerful role, for although he has turned in delightful work as clumsy and cocksure jerks in Tarantino’s last two features, he has always clearly been ready for a meatier material, and he does not disappoint. I certainly had to blink a few times to remind myself I was watching gifted comedians like Colman and Gaffigan, (and even Dever, gaining traction recently for her turn in Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart, and Pullman, who commendably held his own in Drew Goddard’s Bad Times at El Royale last year against a positively stacked cast) who so effortlessly can make viewers guffaw and giggle, but here bury that mirth under an impressive amount of characterization. I should not patronize, of course — many a brilliant dramatic performance can be found when a comedian decides to turn their knack for timing and delivery on serious subject matter. Credit to the directors for coaxing so many impressive performances to the screen.
Credit as well to those responsible for the unforgettable visuals and editing surrounding the truly terrifying snakes. If an award exists for Best Ensemble Reptile Performance, Them That Follow is a sure bet. Ophidiophobes, steer clear. Even as a fan of our slithery friends, I was squirming in my seat. Poulton and Savage have not made a horror movie in a traditional sense, rather an unsettling religious ensemble drama, but they make a real meal of the scarier elements; if you are looking to be disturbed by eerie reptilian menace, and vile human behavior, — or even if you want to argue about the perils of true religious freedom — look no further.
Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller