Them That Follow is set within a rural Appalachian community of Pentecostal Christians who are mostly just fighting to get by and follow their faith.
Mara (Alice Englert) is the daughter of pastor Lemuel (Walton Goggins, doing the Goggins thing; fans of Justified who enjoyed his character’s brief stint with the Lord will find his performance largely the same here, and deeply enjoyable).
Although she’s the pastor’s daughter, Mara has found herself pregnant by by way of Augie (Thomas Mann), the apostate son of the church matriarch, Hope (Olivia Colman). Bad news is, she’s bound to be wed to Garret (Lewis Pullman), who kind of sucks up to Lemuel and fills the classic “nice guy who is probably going to try to rape someone soon” role in these sorts of movies. Because Them That Follow is a very well-shot, well-acted “this sort of movie,” in which a crisis of faith occurs in a small minority-faith community that results in a woman having to choose between the world in which she was raised and the world beyond those boundaries.
The trailers for Them That Follow market Mara’s tale as a horror movie. Writer-directors Britt Poulton and Daniel Savage depict Lemuel’s handling of the snakes and the third-act bit of body horror in that light, but that’s not the good stuff here. Outside of those bits, Follow plays out as a relatively steady drama about Mara’s place in the faith community. She’s never the most interesting character, though. Coleman in particular comes alive as a woman who came into the church by way of her husband, played by Jim Gaffigan. Events eventually put Hope and her husband in a position to have their faith tested in a much more direct way than Mara’s plight, and it’s really in those sequences that the movie comes to life. Stories about people dealing with a crisis of faith and ultimately moving past their burdensome belief system are a dime a dozen; stories about people living within their set of beliefs, and how they rationalize things that challenge those stories they’ve internalized, are much more interesting and urgent to share.
Hope, as a character, as a convert, is more interesting than Mara, who is defined by what she faces and overcomes. Mara’s is a story that, when confined to a movie’s limited running time, has to end in a cliffhanger. Because outside of her church, who is Mara going to be? What kind of life is she going to lead? What skills does she have? For Hope, her choice was made: Years of drifting in and out of the world has landed her here, deep in the rural mountains where she has a place in the community and a steady job as a shopkeeper. Hope’s beliefs, and what binds her to them, ultimately lead her to the brink of tragedy, which creates the tension of the third act (and is used heavily in the horror-themed advertisements). However, even as Hope’s choice contradicts her faith, it fails to supplant it. Hope will attend the same church tomorrow. She’s going to make decisions by the same social logic. Her choice will be folded into her continued experience and reframed as the grace of God. This is what she believes. The movie does not treat her as a stupid person, but it doesn’t seem to realize she’s the most interesting person in the story.
Them That Follow is much more focused on the drama caused inside the insular community by Mara and depicting it as a thriller, which ends up a shame as it feels so of a kind with other, better movies. Like I mentioned: The Garret character does exactly what you know he’s going to do as soon as his place in the hierarchy is questioned. Sure. I guess, to some extent, we’ve just seen this before — and in more interesting, insightful ways. The small religious group, the patriarchal area, the woman escaping from it into … what? The world beyond it doesn’t seem much different, sans snakes. So, too, the setting of Appalachia, which feels like the place filmmakers go when they want to focus on white poverty without ever really examining what has caused that area of the country to become blighted. “Look at the strange rituals that come to pass so far away from the coasts,” these stories ask, but what else are they going to do to feel like a community?
This isn’t to say that Them That Follow is necessarily a bad movie. It captures an intensity and holds it throughout. Certainly the sequences featuring Garret, or featuring the more gory elements, aren’t to be taken lightly. It just feels like familiar ground in which focus is misplaced. Mara is right to leave into the larger world, where at this point the big game-show preachers have already won the country anyway, while we collectively scratch our heads, make fun of them and wonder with winnowing empathy what their ardent followers — the real-life Hopes of the world — are getting out of it.