Mark 16:18: “They shall take up serpents. … They shall lay hands on the sick and they shall recover.”
I must confess before I begin my review of Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage's debut narrative feature Them That Follow that I'm familiar with the kind of isolated pockets of rural Appalachia portrayed in the flawed yet gripping, meaningful film.
I'm familiar with these types of mostly smaller, fiercely faithful serpent handling types of almost always Pentecostal churches where quiet tensions nearly always seem to undergird the fervency of a faithful life proven by one's devoted handling of these potentially lethal serpents.
Having family members who continue to live in these areas to this day, I've been in these churches. I've prayed in these churches. Yes, I've even handled serpents in these churches.
So, I get the world in which Them That Follow is set and while I more than half expected for co-writers/directors Poulton and Savage to practically baptize the film in the waters of caricature I was pleasantly surprised that the film is far more annointed in sacredness, observation, authenticity, and understanding.
Them That Follow isn't a perfect film, far from it, but it's a captivating film that immersed me in this world and made me strangely comfortable with its religious devotion meets real world saturation.
If you've never been in such a faith community, and I'm guessing that most of you haven't, it's difficult to describe the kind of claustrophobic intimacy that exists in a world that takes takes that sort of small town "everybody knows your business" kind of thing and amplifies it a hundredfold to the point where everybody knows your every sin including the ones you don't even know about yourself.
Alice Englert (Ginger & Rosa, Beautiful Creatures) is Mara, is one of this community of faith's prized members, a true believin' coming of age young woman and the daughter of the pastor himself, Lemuel, played by Walton Goggins (Vice Principals, The Shield) with a sort of manic, charismastic emotional intensity that makes you understand why people would follow him so unquestioningly no matter how seemingly absurd this world might seem to the outside world.
Mara's hand in marriage has been promised to the pastor approved Garret (Lewis Pullman, Catch 22), the sort of upstanding young man of faith who's always deemed a prize catch but whose masks also always seem to conceal a sort of menacing mystery and secret truth. This is not to say that Mara herself doesn't harbor a few secrets, most notably her preference for the faith questioning Augie (Thomas Mann, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl), whose lack of faithful submission is of growing concern to his parents (Academy Award winner Olivia Colman and comedian Jim Gaffigan in a non-comedic role).
The story that unfolds in Them That Follow is for the most part familiar, perhaps the film's greatest weakness, though Poulton and Savage embrace an authenticity that is refreshing if not always wholly convincing in terms of story. Where Them That Follow excels is in the sublime work of its ensemble cast. Englert is mesmerizing as Mara, somehow capturing both faith and emotional vulnerability and surrender to a God we're never quite sure she actually believes in despite her constantly telling us that she does.
Goggins, while not particularly doing anything here we haven't seen him do before, still does it all exquisitely well and convincingly, while Colman again reminds us she's one of the most diversely gifted actresses working today. Thomas Mann, living into his Me and Earl and the Dying Girl promise, gives an understated yet aching performance as Augie. Jim Gaffigan is incredibly effective as a father who gets the wrath of Pastor Lemuel for his obviously ineffective parenting of his constantly questioning and potentially straying son.
Them That Follow isn't a groundbreaking film, yet it's the kind of film that brings to light its mostly hidden world in ways that feel honest, transparent, and devoid of judgment even as the story begins to ride that impossibly tumultuous line between believer and non-believer and the inevitable emotional and physical chaos that ensues when the worlds ultimately meet and even overlap. While it may not be a perfect film, Them That Follow is an impressive debut feature from Poulton and Savage and a film that makes me anxious to see where their cinematic visions travel from here.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic