A common symbol in indigenous folk tales and allegories, snakes are not to be messed with. Most famously, Adam and Eve were coaxed by a snake into temptation, committing the very first sin. In Them That Follow, they are symbols of God’s wrath, slithering and wrapping their bodies around the outstretched arms of Pentecostal churchgoers. If you get bit, its God’s will and only your constant prayer will make the venom go away. The film asks the question, how many more times must you be bitten before you let go?
A modern Shakespearean fable that plays out in an Appalachian snake-handling Pentecostal church, Mara (Alice Englert), lives out her daily life as the pastor’s daughter, spending her days doing chores, hanging with her best friend, Dilly (a timid Kaitlyn Dever) and sneaking away to see Augie (Thomas Mann). Though they mutually care for one another, Mara is torn between what she wants, what her father, Lemuel (Walton Goggins) wants, and what she believes God wants. As Augie has drifted from the church, Mara feels obligated to fulfill her father’s wishes and accepts a marriage proposal from Garrett (Lewis Pullman), a young man that does not see Mara as she is, but as what he wants her to be. As she carries a secret and her devotion to God and those around her are tested, Mara must determine which path leads to the least amount of death and destruction.
Written and directed by Brittany Poulton and Dan Madison Savage, Them That Follow is a masterclass in tension and world-building. Within the first fifteen minutes, you understand the intricacies and intensities of the people surrounding Mara. Women play a more subservient role to men, modesty and arranged marriage are pillars of church doctrine. Doctors and policemen are to be avoided at all costs, as God is the only true savior and protector. Part of the film’s success in suspense and exposition is the clear and concise script and the strong performances from the supporting cast, particularly Olivia Colman and Jim Gaffigan. As Hope and Zeke, Augie’s parents and devoted followers of Lemuel, the couple provides serves as a reminder that Mara decisions don’t just affect herself but the people around her.
Colman’s performance is searing, staying with you after the film ends. Of course, this is to be expected of the Oscar-winning actress who is also nominated for an Emmy this year for her hilariously polar opposite performance in Fleabag. Part mother figure, part terrifying religious zealot, Colman brings humanity and layers to a character, that could easily be played over the top. Her scenes with comedian Jim Gaffigan burst with chemistry as two parents struggling over their devotion to their faith and to their son.
The pace, slow and calculated, juxtaposes more intense scenes of snake handling and violence. Anxiety builds in one scene as Zeke holds a snake above his head, chanting from the congregation, building to an overwhelming point. When the film climaxes, it ends in the logical conclusion, not so much a satisfying one. Englert’s performance seems uninspired, and with the film focusing on every single decision her character makes, emotional resonance with the audience is crucial for the ending to land.
Them That Follow is a story you get lost in. Set amongst gray skies and falling leaves deep in the woods, a dreariness and lingering sense of tension follow you to the end of the film. While the main performances lacked sparks, Colman’s captivating performance makes the film worth watching, proving that she is still rising to the top.
Rating 3.5 out of 5