Movie Review: Them That Follow (SIFF 2019)
Them That Follow is a sort of coming of age about a young woman who lives with her pastor father and worships in a community of snake handlers. The secret she holds, though, threatens the peace of the community and her impending marriage. The film stars Alice Englert, Kaitlyn Dever, Walton Goggins, Thomas Mann, Olivia Colman, Lewis Pullman, and Jim Gaffigan. The film is written and directed by Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage.
Films that approach faith from the outside, especially an extreme form of faith, often create an otherness where the audience is looking at someone more "backward" than those of us who live in the secular world. This otherness can remove the empathy we feel for the characters and help us to empathize with the main character who is usually trying to remove themselves from that situation. Them That Follow keeps its audience at a distance with this otherness and with a main character who is passive and inactive about her situation. It never fully reveals its rules to its detriment.
After watching the film I still can't tell you why the snakes are involved in this worship service. My best understanding is that if the snake doesn't bite, then you are forgiven, if the snake does bite then you need to wrestle with the poison to see if you can be forgiven. It's never set out and fully explained by the elders for us, or if it is, I missed it entirely. That is the fault of the movie. We're never on an even footing on why we should be in fear of the snakes other than the fact that the snakes are apt to bite someone. It makes those tense scenes much more confusing than truly tense.
Not only are the rules confusing, but Mara, played by Alice Englert, has confusing motivations for her actions. She has a deep and abiding faith, yet she has committed one of the big sins seemingly wantonly. She wants to get away, but she won't leave the church or its practices. I suppose that is the nature of conflict and indecision, but so much of it is an internal struggle that it's hard to empathize with her situation. Even in her aggressive moments she seems a passive observer of her own situation. The action at the end feels entirely unearned.
That passivity is another issue as well when there are times that the actions of others pull focus of the story from what's really important. The motivations of Kaitlyn Dever's character, Dilly, are completely unknown. She is an important character as a sounding board for Mara, but I have no idea what drives her to do as she does other than a blanket "faith" in the community. Even her faith seems tenuous at times, though. She has several focused scenes, but for the most part, these don't help us to understand why she does what she does in her last scene. There's no evil smile, there's no obvious malice or machinations. It's all done in doe-eyed innocence that's also not earned.
Though, for all its faults, there are some really great scenes in the film. There's the great swell of the service and every scene with snakes is intense. Every time a snake is handled or just seen it's got an intensity to it, that shows the filmmakers' artistry and will keep me intrigued to see the next project that Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage attempt.
Yet, I can't enthusiastically encourage you to see it when it hits theaters on August 2nd of this year. There's just not much there to experience. I think if there was one positive I can take from it is that it boasts a couple of good supporting performances from Walton Goggins and Olivia Colman that may be worth your while if you love those actors. Other than that, I think it's one you can wait for the video on demand or DVD if you're truly curious.