Religious communities can be fascinating subjects in movies. Specifically, closed off groups that live according to their faith, following rules that may seem odd to the larger world. How do they make life better for their members? Do the rules benefit the whole? Or just the leadership? Them That Follow, set in a small evangelical community in the Appalachian Mountains, is a thoughtful character study that examines several of those questions. It features strong performances and a clear view of who these people are. Some of its impact is lessened by a couple of awkward plot elements and subtle thriller undertones that do not totally fit the story. Overall, this is an intriguing drama about a life most of its viewers will never experience.
Mara is the daughter of the Pastor. She is in love with the sweet Auggie but, since he is not religious, she knows marriage to him would be difficult for those around her to accept. Instead, she is gently pushed toward polite Garret. While she is given a choice, it is not much of one. The movie uses this plot, and Mara’s slowly building doubts about their way of life, to look closely at those who live there.
One of the odder aspects of Them That Follow, something that works both for and against it, is poisonous snakes. The Pastor and his people are snake handlers. The snakes represent the temptation of the devil. The way to truly cleanse oneself is to hold a snake without getting bitten. Only then are you accepted by God. This is a powerfully literal way to prove your faith, not just in God, but also in the Pastor. Early on, it is established that the authorities have their eye on him due to deaths caused by this ritual. That adds tension because we know how dangerous it is. However, since the main narrative is so personal, it becomes a distraction. It is obvious someone is going to get bitten and that suspense takes a little bit away from the delicate drama of the individuals.
What stops it from being entirely undermined by it are the performances. Alice Englert is Mara, devoted to her father, but divided by her feelings for Auggie. She has a lot of quiet moments of introspection, rarely letting her emotions out. Walton Goggins is fantastic as her father, Lemuel. He is much more complex than the leader figure is usually allowed to be. He is not power-hungry. He really believes in what he preaches. Goggins is an excellent actor who, unfortunately, does not generally get the opportunity to show that on the big screen. He is very compelling here.
Kaitlyn Dever (who starred in May’s hilarious comedy Booksmart) is Mara’s friend, Dilly. She is more of a child than Mara, a little naïve about the ways of the world. She shows a vulnerable side of the community. The most faithful side comes from Auggie’s mom, Hope, who feels Lemuel saved her. She is played by Olivia Colman (an Oscar winner this year for The Favourite) as a woman who knows with all her heart their way is right. They each add tremendously to the movie, bringing a power that overcomes some of its flaws.
Them That Follow (93 minutes without the end credits) is an interesting movie that puts an okay story into a unique world. It is carried by its actors and the depth it brings to its community. Perhaps the snakes could have been used in a more nuanced way, so they would not feel so much like Chekhov’s gun hanging over everything? That said, I will not soon forget the image of a scared parishioner having a snake draped across their shoulders to prove their love for God.
3½ out of 5
Alice Englert as Mara
Walton Goggins as Lemuel
Olivia Colman as Hope
Lewis Pullman as Garret
Thomas Mann as Augie
Kaitlyn Dever as Dilly
Written and Directed by Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage