Two young adults stand up to religious extremism in the backwoods of America.
THEM THAT FOLLOW, USA. Directors: Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage. Starring: Alice Englert, Walton Goggins, Thomas Mann, Olivia Colman, Lewis Pullman, Jim Gaffigan. Language, English. Runtime: 98 minutes. A Sundance premiere. Release date: August 2, 2019. Rating: A—
If anyone had told me that I would go to the movie theatre to watch a movie about an extremist Pentecostal community existing in the backwoods of America and following the mandates dictated by a preacher hell-bent on exacting control over his subjects I would have laughed out loud. It’s not that I don’t have any respect for this underbelly of society. It’s that these people have for so long been lampooned in film and serials, and their leaders born the stamp of amoral, self-righteous charlatans, that to tell a compelling story equal parts coming of age and moral outrage seems an impossible task that could devolve into cheap melodrama at any moment.
Directors Savage and Poulton waste no time in setting up the scenario complete with its own Chekhov gun, and that is a good thing. The introspective and subservient Mara (Alice Englert) lives in an isolated community with her widower father Lemuel (Walton Goggins, giving a performance that is the right amount of control-freak without going over the edge). Lemuel is the clear leader of the community and it’s “moral” center; a pastor, he conducts sermons that instill the Fear of God onto his devoted, performs exorcisms on those believed to have the Devil inside while speaking in tongues, and also engages in snake handling. While illegal, he continues to follow practice in order to reenact the ultimate test of faith.
Right off the bat the community shows signs of cracks (and who else but a blind person would want to live in this much medieval dark?). Mara enters a convenience store with her friend Dilly (Kaitlyn Dever). The store is run by townswoman Hope (Olivia Colman). She is the mother of the guy with progressive ideas Mara has been seeing, Augie (Thomas Mann). She doesn’t see Mara deftly stealing a pregnancy test. What she does know, is that Mara is to be betrothed to Garrett (Lewis Pullman), a bit of a possessive creep who fawns over Mara’s purity and confesses the lengths that he will go to prove his love for her. Meanwhile, Mara? Not that impressed, but cornered into the cul de sac of an arranged marriage, a helpless victim of a society steeped in religious patriarchy.
With this set of cards, both Savage and Poulton lay out a game that starts to gain momentum without overreaching or getting ahead of itself. We know the basics, we know there is a delicate situation at hand, and that somehow this festering psychic boil, much like the physical boil that manifests on the arm of an innocent victim seeking some form of answer, must explode and reveal its poison for better or worse. Them That Follow is a terrific buildup of sheer tension, a juggling act that the directors handle extremely well. Nothing in the movie—even and especially its characters’ decisions to let faith alone guide their actions—seems out of place (although the rational part of me kept yelling inside my mind, because of course I know better).
Of all the characters I’m going to single out Olivia Colman’s pPerformance. While she may have won an Oscar for her wild and volatile turn as Queen Anne in Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite, here she plays a part where she always seems to know more than she let’s on. That her character carries the ironic name Hope can’t be just a coincidence. Of the ensemble, she is the one who manifests equal parts hope and hopelessness in a single range of expression. It’s almost as though her faith is so strong it almost drives her into a very dark place, but she is also acting not out of self-righteousness like Goggins’ Lemuel, but of a want to save her son.
This is a solid debut that will definitely please anyone seeking compelling stories of people caught in traps of their own design. It is a definite watch; catch it when it comes out this August.