SXSW Film Review – Them That Follow
Them That Follow
Them That Follow is a film that screamed thriller or horror to me at SXSW. Unless you are terrified of snakes, this film is a drama set in a remote Appalachian town that does not have money but plenty of faith. This faith is what is persecuted by outsiders, a Pentecostal church that revolves around showing the Lord how devoted they are by the handling of venomous snakes. The persecution comes from those that believe this display of faith is unorthodox and, rightly so, causes injury and death if they are bitten.
The film revolves around Mara (Alice Englert) as she wrestles with her faith. Her father, Lemuel (Walton Goggins), is the pastor of the local church, and being the pastor’s daughter puts immense pressure on her to live up to her father’s standards and the local community. Mara has a destiny that is already planned out for her, beginning with an arranged marriage of sorts to Garret (Lewis Pullman), Lemuel’s right-hand man. Complicating matters to the extreme for Mara is a hush-hush romance between her and Augie (Thomas Mann), who no longer follows the faith but whose parents are still devout followers. His mother, Hope (Olivia Colman), is Sister Slaughter, the female elder of the church. His father, Zeke (Jim Gaffigan), is not the most stand-up guy in relation to how he conducts himself and how dependable he is to his family and the community. The film starts with probably the worst thing that could happen to Mara, save death. She is pregnant.
After seeing a glimpse at Augie and Mara’s romance, what quickly follows is Mara and her best friend Dilly (Kaitlyn Dever) traipsing into town to steal the pregnancy test at Hope’s store. Dilly is also in the dark about this situation. The confirmed pregnancy is the sin that Mara has to carry, a sin that she cannot hide or get rid of without her father eventually finding out. There is one small hope for Mara, and that is to marry Garret and make the baby seem like it is his. For this to happen, Mara will have to come to terms with marrying someone she does not love and existing in the path she is choosing for the rest of her life.
Mara never comes off as a person who will leave her Pentecostal faith. She has been raised around it her whole life. She is still defensive about her church towards outsiders and protective about its secrets. She lost her mother at some point and became the woman of the house, curtailing to her father’s law and demands. Lemuel wavers on being a protective father or just protective of the values of the faith and his home. It is evident that Mara cannot trust such an egregious sin with her father, knowing that she may be cast out of her church and the community. As the film proceeds, we see inklings of how this faith keeps women in dresses or skirts and doesn’t allow them to drive. It is asking a lot of a woman to break free of such a sheltered existence for something that she believes is a sin.
Directors and screenwriters Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage created a compelling story around a faith that not many people know about. While it is about a particular religion, it is also a familial drama in a secluded community. Given that the story does not have many characters, these filmmakers lucked out in the talent they were able to cast and made atypical choices. These casting choices allowed a new Oscar winner to stretch her range to a bold, folksy woman with tremendous strength, and it allowed a comedian to play the dumb guy who grows a pair when his son is at risk. While the cast is phenomenal, the setting and filming in the fall made it all seem more remote and unforgiving. The poorly constructed houses and the characters’ clothing made everything feel cold. Mara wasn’t necessarily looking for forgiveness from anyone but God through most of the film, but it felt like the environment was not going to send her a rare sunny and warm day either.
The climax of Them That Follow and its resolution all stem from Mara and Augie stepping away from the future that their faith prescribed for them. The pregnancy is seen as a sin, but it can also be seen as means of escape. Mara is hellbent on staying the course and living the life that her father wants for her. Augie has long given up on his faith and wants better things for him and Mara. It is his devotion to Mara that gets him into trouble but also leads him to the life he wanted. The story can be one of escape or of destiny depending on the viewpoint. I have long been a fan of Alice Englert and having her play the main character again lets me marvel at her acting prowess, delightedly more so when she is reunited with her previous co-star Thomas Mann. There is plenty to love about Them That Follow. The story is original with layers to peel back and examine for each character and it all unfolds being played by a superb cast.