Films delving into the subject matter of religious sects almost always face an uphill battle, from the start. Dive way down into the nitty gritty right away, you may lose the audience. Build up for too long, you might not captivate them enough. It’s a slippery slope that even the most experienced of directors have trouble with. Through writers and directors Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage, Them That Follow is a measured, in terms of action and silence. Peppered with stunning and nuanced performances, that shows great care for its subject matter. Unfortunately, they fumble at times on that tightrope, keeping the film from being exceptionally memorable. Even though it often flirts with that prospect.
Deep on a mostly secluded Appalachian mountain, a group of Pentecostal Snake Handlers live in a tight-knit community. They’ve run into the law before, so take up worship withing a shipping container or deep within the woods. Pastor Lemuel (Walton Goggins, great as always) leads a small, but devoted flock of true believers. His strong willed daughter, Mara (Alice Englert) is one of them. Yet her faith is tested, after a dalliance with Augie (Thomas Mann) who’s strayed from the group, leads to consequences that threaten to tear the haven apart. Rather than race towards the logical conclusion, the film lets it’s fine set of actors to carry more weight than is really necessary.
Them That Follow is slow to divulge where it’s heading, but never fully plods along. Instead the time is to show just how the lives of multiple members of the congregation, are shaped by their views. Garrett (Lewis Pullman) operates as Lemuel’s right hand man. Often informing him of police activity in the area. He’s also been chosen as Hope (recent Oscar Winner Olivia Colman) serves as mother hen to the women. She’s one of the few who seems to hold down a regular job, helping assert her importance to the community. Meanwhile, Dilly (Kaitlyn Dever) is forced to decide if family or religion matters more to her, after her mother disappears one night.
In fact, almost every member of the congregation harbors some dark secret or troubled past. Yet it never chooses to explore any of these paths. Doing so hampers the overall narrative. Asking an audience to trust these people are in a “better place” without seeing where they came from, is a glaring oversight. Not everyone’s background needs to be fleshed out in the light of day, but it keeps the dramatic tension at a distance. It also causes some decisions, on the part of the characters, to feel suspect. A betrayal and act of violence in the third act threatens to stop everything in its tracks. There’s a sense that one can glean what’s happening is old demons rearing their head. Yet it’s never given a fare shake. What’s more, the person who perpetrates said act, is never seen in the film’s final passages, leaving a jarring plot hole.
As it creeps towards the climax, the pace starts to take its toll. While many of the quiet moments are beautifully framed by Brett Jutkiewicz’s sublime cinematography, things at times feel inert. Too small is the story, to really dig into the ” why” these people believe so ardently. Or what it was that brought them to the religion in the first place. How effective the portrait comes across to each individual, will determine ultimately what they get out of the film. Yet there’s a persistent inexplicable pull throughout. The performances are top notch and absolutely stirring. The atmosphere that shrouds the film is palpable. That’s a testament to Poulton and Madison Savage’s work though. Them That Follow may not be the best film on religion around, but it’s an interesting curiosity, nonetheless. One just a few small pieces away from being truly great.
Review: ‘Them That Follow’ Is Big On Performances, But Flat In Terms Of Story