“Them That Follow” is a thoughtful and harrowing examination of personal identity and belief within a devout, reclusive community.
Though the fictional community featured is based on real-life groups often sensationalized for their unusual practice of worship, the filmmakers make it their mission to not make those practices the center of the film’s story.
Instead, the focus is on a personal crisis that could happen in any tight-knit American community, and how that crisis, when it’s revealed to this particular group, escalates.
The result is an intense and quietly emotional film. It transports audiences in an authentic way, observing without judgment or pretense, in order to leave viewers with indelible images and lingering questions.
What’s it about?
Alice Englert plays Mara, the daughter of a pastor (Walton Goggins, “Ant-Man and the Wasp“) leading a small congregation living on an unnamed mountain in Appalachia.
The congregation avoids contact with outsiders and the law for a reason. They are what outsiders refer to as “serpent handlers” – evangelicals who in the course of worship at times demonstrate the touch of the Holy Spirit upon them by picking up venomous snakes, believing their faith will keep them safe from harm.
When viewers first meet Mara, she’s already got a lot on her plate. A dutiful child, she’s faced with deciding whether to marry Garret (Lewis Pullman, “Bad Times at the El Royale“), another member of their faith group who her father approves of but to whom she’s ambivalent. Further, as the pastor’s daughter, she has to make her choice under the scrutiny of the entire community.
But it’s more complicated even than that. Mara’s guarding a secret, one that’s shaking her own belief to its core.
Her eventual choices on what to do set into motion events that threaten to tear her world apart. It sets the stage for the ultimate test of her faith, not just in the divine, but in herself.
What’s perhaps most striking about “Them That Follow” is its measured, evenhanded approach to faith and worship as practiced by a non-mainstream group.
The filmmakers make a clear effort to avoid sensationalizing in scenes depicting serpent-handling during worship. They keep the narrative lens dispassionate, presenting those scenes almost the way a documentary might.
As a result, they achieve both authenticity and intimacy. It feels like we’re watching something real that few outsiders have ever seen up close.
They follow that same approach with the film’s characters. There’s not a single hint of caricature in their depiction of the group’s members. Instead, we get portraits of hard, survival-minded people. They live the only way they know how to live — by the land and by their faith.
These aren’t very chatty people, either. There’s much left unsaid in many of the film’s scenes that come across anyway through its potent staging and strong performances, creating effective tension and dread that builds to a satisfying climax.
Speaking of performances, fans of Goggins and Olivia Colman (“The Favourite“) need to make time to see “Them That Follow.”
Both performers deliver work that defies type and set the tone for the entire film. While they are not the story’s central characters, they come to represent the community’s collective will. And when they, too, face personal tests, how they respond speaks to the filmmakers’ thoughts on how such a community might survive such challenges.
Them That Follow
Starring Olivia Colman, Kaitlyn Dever, Alice Englert, Jim Gaffigan, Walton Goggins, Thomas Mann, Lewis Pullman. Directed by Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage.
Running time: 98 minutes.
Rated R for some disturbing violence.