EIFF 2019: Them That Follow
As if religious fanaticism wasn’t frightening enough, now it’s got snakes!
Up in the Appalachian mountains, a church pastor’s teenage daughter, Mara (Alice Englert), attempts to hide her unexpected pregnancy from her ultra-religious community. Their attitudes on marriage, sex, and pretty much any issue involving women, are outdated and oppressive. It isn’t a textbook faith, but one that believes that serpents can cleanse the soul and must be respected. As such, they feature heavily in the village’s unorthodox services, during which Pastor Lemuel (Walton Goggins) will handle a snake in front of his congregation while they fervently carry out their worship. Among the followers is Hope (Olivia Colman) whose son Augie (Thomas Mann) is the father of Mara’s child. To make matters more complicated, Augie has become disillusioned with the religion and is almost considered an outsider, so the couple has no choice but to keep their relationship hidden.
The film’s mise-en-scene is as old-fashioned as the community’s views; the only indication of its modern setting is the bottle of Batiste dry shampoo that Mara buys at the store. With the village’s rejection of modern technology and the material world, you’d be forgiven for thinking that time there had stopped decades ago. There isn’t just a sense of temporal isolation, however, but also spatial isolation. The only contact they have with the outside world is when the police come to investigate them, and Lemuel, in particular, is deeply sceptical of them. The younger generation, primarily Mara and Augie, are not so critical, and the mounting claustrophobia they feel in the village is portrayed convincingly by the use of close-ups and lack of deep focus.
However, although the community appears secluded and insular, their ideology is not far removed from what we see public figures express on social media. Lemuel uses wild serpents in his sermons and then preaches to his followers that faith and prayers will be enough to cure a venomous bite; modern medicine be damned. He is well aware that several members of his congregation have been fatally bitten in the past, yet he never questions the role of the snakes. Insisting on thoughts and prayers in response to a traumatic event instead of taking action to prevent future incidents… Sounds rather familiar, doesn’t it? Whether the analogy was made on purpose or not, it adds a poignant dynamic to the film that isn’t obvious on the surface.
Aside from its interesting premise and apparent social commentary, the film doesn’t have much propelling it forward except for the cast’s performances. Walton Goggins and Olivia Colman are especially compelling, but the film’s level of dramatic action fails to reach the bar they set. Its key climactic scene, which sees Mara have an intense, close encounter with one of the snakes, is underwhelming and unsatisfying.
Them That Follow offers a unique and, at times, thought-provoking story. However, its execution lacks impact and turns this original drama into something that’s largely forgettable.
Directed by: Britt Poulton, Dan Madison Savage
Cast: Alice Englert, Kaitlyn Dever, Walton Goggins, Olivia Colman, Lewis Pullman