Entrenched in a rural Pentecostal community of Appalachian snake handlers who risk their lives in order to test their devotion to God (led by a reliably skeezy Walton Goggins), a pastor’s daughter (Alice Engler of Ginger & Rosa and Beautiful Creatures) is forced to make a difficult decision when her forbidden romance causes her to question her faith. As she moves further away from the practices of her overbearing father (Goggins) and zealous fiancé (Lewis Pullman), her scandalous secret threatens to destroy what she holds most dear, as her transgression continues to gnaw away at her conscience.
Arguably the most important decision made by first-time writer-director duo Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage is keeping an ambiguous stance in their inquisitive exploration of religion. Even when it covers the nasty side of faith, Them That Follow is surprisingly sympathetic to the community on display. Poulton and Savage have done their homework, and their care and attention show as they approach the subject with a sense of respect and open-minded curiosity throughout. It is a challenging film, but one that is genuinely meant to spark conversation, rather than judge or sermonize. The filmmakers continuously go to great lengths to showcase the goodness within even their most despicable characters. It is steeped in objective reality, which is saying something for a movie that would have you believe there’s a world in which Olivia Colman and Jim Gaffigan are married.
That said, watching Them That Follow is often a quite tense experience. Poulton and Savage keep the viewer on the edge of their seat with both the imminent threat of the venomous snakes themselves and also the enveloping emotional suffocation of our protagonist. The film is filled with too many spectacular performances to list (Oscar-winner Olivia Colman, rapidly rising Kaitlyn Dever, ever-evolving Thomas Mann, to name a few), but it’s Englert’s Mara who steals the show as a wandering disciple in dire need of a revelation. It would be all too easy to characterize her as someone who wants to escape the restrictive grasp of her community, but in reality, she’s simply searching for the deeper meaning she was promised (and yet denied) by the church. The slow-building unease is a bit shaky at times, but it leads into an almost flawless final act.
Gorgeous in its brutality, with Brett Jutkiewicz’s photography shifting between tight, claustrophobic closeups and expansive, sweeping landscapes, Them That Follow doesn’t answer all of the theological questions it poses, but the conversation is compelling enough to invite further investigation. With fully realized characters, awards-caliber performances, and palpable grinding tension, Poulton and Savage’s debut, while far from perfect, is sure to be a jumping-off point for a pointed philosophical discussion. And the psychological anguish of it all is only further cemented by its serpentine scene-stealers.