THEM THAT FOLLOW (2019)
Olivia Colman, Kaitlyn Dever, Alice Englert, Jim Gaffigan, Walton Goggins, Thomas Mann, Lewis Pullman
Directed by Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage
“They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover” (Mark 16:18). The practice of snake handling or “serpent-handling” in the Pentecostal church dates back to the early 20th century in rural areas of the South. Believers would handle the poisonous reptiles after being overcome by the Holy Spirit as a sign of faith, believing the Lord would protect them from the snake's deadly bite. "Them That Follow” is set among a small religious sect in the Appalachian Mountains led by a pastor (Walton Goggins) whose devout daughter (Alice Englert) is harboring a secret. The exceptional cast also includes Oscar winner Olivia Colman (“The Favourite”), Kaitlyn Dever from “Booksmart,” and comedian Jim Gaffigan in a dramatic role. A stirring film that doesn’t treat these characters as fanatics.
The performances by Goggins, Colman, and Englert are so natural that at times it feels like you’re watching a documentary. Shot in the Youngstown area of rural Ohio by cinematographer Brett Jutkiewicz who captures the isolation of the religious community, both physically and mentally, by taking advantage of the gloomy skies to set the tone for the backwoods setting. The powerful worship scenes which take place inside a barn converted into a church are captured by Jutkiewicz’s roaming Steadicam giving the audience the feeling that they are in the congregation overcome by the Holy Spirit.
At the heart of the feature debut from writers-directors Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage, is the pastor’s daughter Mara (Alice Englert), a devout follower of the Pentecostal church run by her father Lemuel (a very good Walton Goggins) who has promised her hand in marriage to the unconfident Garret played by Lewis Pullman who does a terrific job of playing jittery characters as in last year’s “Bad Times at the El Royale.”
Mara, however, has feelings for Augie (Thomas Mann) the only person in this tight-knit community who is not a believer. His parents Hope, known to everyone as Sister Slaughter (Olivia Colman), and Zeke (Jim Gaffigan) are pillars of the church who haven’t a clue about Augie’s feelings for the pastor’s daughter. In one scene Hope gives Mara some advice, “When the devil creeps in you need someone to see the truth even when you don’t,” without realizing that her son may just be the temptation she’s warning the young girl about, or could he be her salvation?
The uncomplicated narrative benefits from the performances by the first-rate cast which also includes Kaitlyn Dever (“Booksmart”) as Mara’s best friend Dilly who lives alone after her mother took off and never came back. Pastor Lemuel invites her to move in with him and Mara under the condition that she relinquish ties with her mother if she returns.
Goggins, a fine character actor who’s appeared in Tarantino’s “Django Unchained” and “The Hateful Eight” shines as he steps up into a lead role as the charismatic-yet-stern spiritual leader. Colman does a 180 going from an Oscar-winning performance as Queen Anne in last year’s “The Favourite” to play a cigarette-puffing country bumpkin in yet another standout performance.
"Them That Follow” resists the temptation of turning these characters into fanatics choosing to forgo judgment in order to tell a compelling story that amps up the drama in the final act. The moments grow tense as we watch various believers handle the venomous snakes. If someone gets bit, they only have 48 hours to live unless an act of divine intervention saves them since medical care is out of the question. You may not agree with their beliefs, but you’re also left without the desire to vilify these characters. It’s a dark and mystifying world based on faith and love.
Opens Friday, August 9 in Houston at Alamo Drafthouse LaCenterra, AMC Studio 30, and AMC Willowbrook 24