As a small but intense drama set in an isolated religious community, “Them That Follows” delivers several strong moments to remember. Although it is relentlessly gloomy and moody from the beginning to the end, the movie manages to avoid becoming a tedious dirge thanks to its commendable technical aspects as well as a number of good performances to be appreciated, and I found myself more emotionally involved in its story and characters even though I could clearly sense where it was inevitably heading.
The story mainly revolves around a young woman named Mara Childs (Alice Englert), who has faithfully followed her Christian preacher father’s unorthodox preaching along with other members of their small rural religious community located somewhere in the Appalachians. During his sermons, Lemuel (Walton Goggins) frequently handles poisonous snakes in front of his followers for emphasizing how they must avoid sin and temptation for following the words of God, and we are not so surprised when it is revealed later that he has recently gotten himself in a trouble with the local police due to a serious incident involved with his poisonous snakes.
With the full support from her father and the members of his church, Mara gets engaged to a lad named Garret (Lewis Pullman), but there is one big problem she has not told anyone yet. As already shown to us at the very beginning, she has been pretty close to another young man in her community, and, to make matters worse, she belatedly discovers that she has been already pregnant for a while. Considering that Augie (Thomas Mann), who is that young man in question, is eager to get out of the community as soon as possible, she may just run away with him before her pregnancy is exposed to everyone, but, as a girl who has spent her whole life in the community, she cannot possibly imagine living away from her community and her widower father.
As Mara becomes more conflicted under her impossible circumstance, the movie gradually dials up the level of tension bit by bit. While those poisonous snakes in the film constantly bring ominous mood into the story, the sense of suffocation and repression becomes more palpable on the screen as the movie immerses us more into its heroine’s small isolated world, and we come to emphasize more with her while also coming to understand her father and his followers to some degree. Yes, how they devote themselves to their belief in God often looks disturbing to say the least, but they are not bad people at least despite their stern, oppressive mix of Christianity and patriarchy, and some of them turn out to be more sensible than we thought.
Around the narrative point where Mara begins to go through her preparation for the upcoming wedding, the mood becomes more unnerving than before, and the movie continues to accumulate narrative momentum under the competent direction of directors/writers Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage. This is their first feature film, and I must say that they and their crew members did a fairly good job on the whole. Thanks to cinematographer Brett Jutkiewicz, the movie is constantly shrouded in the stark rural atmosphere which is further accentuated by the ambient score by Garth Stevenson, and the editing by Joshua Raymond Lee is efficient during several key scenes in the film including the expected climactic part where Mara literally comes to open her eyes to what should be done for herself and her life.
The movie is not entirely without weak aspects. Rather predictable in terms of story and characters, the movie often seems to be mired in its grim intensity a little too much, and you may come to wish that it relaxed a bit for allowing more space for story and character development. Besides, it also reminds me of how frequently I have come across American independent drama films dripping with stark rural realism, which have been dime a dozen these days.
However, the movie still held my attention despite these and other flaws because of those distinctive elements in the film including the commendable performances of its main cast members. They bring considerable life and personality to their characters, and they look utterly believable as folks who have inhabited in their small isolated world for many years.
While Alice Englert, who was wonderful in “Ginger and Rosa” (2012), ably holds the center as required, Walter Goggins, who has always been dependable since he drew our attention for the first time with his compelling supporting turn in TV drama series “The Shield”, is terrific as a man whose zealous faith becomes quite shaken by what he probably never imagined before, and Thomas Mann and Lewis Pullman are also fine in their respective supporting roles. As Mara’s close friend, Kaitlyn Dever, who was simply heartbreaking in “Short Term 12” (2013) and then showed us more of her talent in “Booksmart” (2019) and recent Netflix miniseries “Unbelievable”, has a few moments to shine at the fringe of the story, and the same thing can be said about Jim Gaffigan and Olivia Colman, who will impress you again as feeling quite different from her recent Oscar-winning performance in “The Favourite” (2018).
Although it could be more polished and improved in a number of aspects, “Them That Follow” is at least a solid start for Poulton and Savage’s burgeoning filmmaking career. It is imperfect indeed, but I was impressed enough by their effort shown on the screen, and I sincerely hope that they will soon move onto better things during next several years.