As part of Edinburgh International Film Festival 2019.
Them That Follow is the sort of film you really want to like but simply can’t. The pieces for a great film are all there, and on paper it should have been an instant hit. It has an excellent cast; a complex setting and theme, both of which are pertinent to modern America; and two relatively freshman writer/directors in the form of Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage looking to cut their teeth with a dramatic, feature-length debut. However, despite all of the elements in place, something just doesn’t click, and the film falls apart as a result.
Set in the Appalachian wilderness, the film follows Mara (Alice Englert), the daughter of a pastor who leads a religious cult obsessed with snakes, whose premarital pregnancy threatens to tear the community apart. It’s a side of rural America that is rarely depicted and the film refuses to back down on its portrayal of such groups, be it the misogyny, the obsession with faith-healing or even the more gruesome aspects including amputation and a subtext of female genital mutilation. This all makes for, what is at times, genuinely stomach-churning imagery on screen.
Unfortunately, Them That Follow never really engages with this religious extremism to the extent necessary for something this dramatic, with the cult-setting becoming little more than set-dressing employed to cheaply raise the stakes in a relatively boring melodrama. Moreover, so much is crammed into the film that plot points are mentioned and then frequently fall by the wayside.
The threat that the cult might be ‘found out’ by the police is mentioned but never really felt, with one character even being arrested off-screen, to then magically reappear five minutes later. Similarly, the internal conflict of Augie (Thomas Mann) – who is (in no particular order): a recent apostate from the group, the son of Olivia Colman’s domineering matriarch, and the father of Mara’s child – is never really fully explored which could have added a greater level of depth to the narrative. So much is placed on the characters that it begins to defy belief, and even the main caveat of the film feels like a drop in the ocean by comparison.
At the same time, the film lacks the gravitas required to really pull off its streamlined dramatic elements as it so readily enters the realm of implausible ridiculousness. Several characters make idiotic decisions with the sheer purpose of plot advancement, which even the ‘get-out-of-jail-free’ card of ‘they’re in a cult’ can’t solve. Even scenes designed to invoke discomfort or horror are instead comical due to the ludicrous situation.
Sadly Them That Follow can never quite overcome its failings, and strong performances from Walton Goggins and the ever-brilliant Colman do not go unscathed. What remains is less Jonestown and more of a heavily Christian, herpetology fan-club with a powder-keg of underlying issues that would make Coronation Street think twice.
European Premiere screenings at Vue Omni Centre Wed 26 and Odeon Edinburgh Sat 29 Jun 2019