'Them That Follow': Film Review | Sundance 2019

Julius Chiu/Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Snakes on the vein!

Alice Englert and Olivia Colman star in this debut feature from Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage about a strict religious community where snake handling tests the soul.

A young woman raised within a close-knit Pentacostal congregation deep in the Appalachian Mountains must make a tough choice between loyalty to her community and following her heart's desire in the earnest melodrama Them That Follow. The writing-directing team of Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage, making their feature debut, are clearly at pains to be respectful toward this highly repressive milieu that interprets parts of the Bible quite literally. We're talking dancing with poisonous snakes (see Mark 16:18) and then refusing to seek medical treatment if someone gets bitten because it's up to God if the victim lives or dies.

Given that also goes with a highly patriarchal, extremely insular culture (few members of which are likely to ever watch this), some viewers may find it hard to feel sympathy for the characters, even the often passive if anguished heroine played sensitively by Alice Englert (Beautiful Creature). Still, her quiet, intense performance represents a big tick in the film's favor, along with a terrific supporting turn from the always practically perfect Olivia Colman (The Favourite), who goes to town with her portrait of a zealous convert to the faith facing some tough choices of her own. Poulton and Madison Savage's screenplay starts off slow and then builds up a big ol' head of crazy by the last half hour, making for sometimes unintentionally risible results.

In an unnamed state (end credits suggest Ohio provided some locations), up a mountain and in a town that barely seems to even have a name, lives a small population of seemingly just a few hundred souls. Barely more than 50 of them regularly attend gatherings in a rather splendidly austere church deep in the woods (with a stark neon cross over the door) or sometimes just some benches in a leafy glade where the autumn colors make the forest look like it's aflame. To these congregants, Reverend Lemuel (Walton Goggins, playing yet another handsome heavy) preaches fire and brimstone, and occasionally speaks in tongues when he's not handing out snakes to help ascertain the worshippers' purity, a kind of serpent-assisted lie detector test. The snake handling stuff is actually illegal (whether because of the danger posed to humans or the animals themselves is not made clear), so the flock have to keep an eye out for the local law when driving around town with rattlers in the trunk.

Lemuel's wife died long ago, and his only child is Mara (Englert), a comely young woman with the wounded eyes of a Byzantine Madonna, who obediently keeps house for her father. A marriage has been effectively arranged between Mara and Garret (Lewis Pullman), an eager acolyte of Lemuel's who is creepily aroused by what he perceives to be Mara's purity. In actual fact, Mara has already played not too long ago with the trouser snake of her friend Augie (Thomas Mann), a young man who has been pulling away from the faith of his fanatical father Zeke (Jim Gaffigan) and mother Hope (Colman). The dalliance has left Mara knocked up, and desperately afraid of what might happen if anyone finds out, even her best friend Dilly (Kaitlyn Dever).

With those pieces set out on the board, it's not hard to guess how it will all play out (can there be such a thing in a drama as a Chekhovian snake?), although the actual level of violence, gore and hysteria proves to be a bit of pulpy treat. The cast commit gamely to the material, although the script is a bit underwritten, making sudden shifts in character a little odd and a bit random. Colman, however, can handle anything thrown her way, including crying abjectly with an open mouth in a way that breaks your heart and suggesting a whole backstory for her character just by the way she smokes a cigarette.

Photography by Brett Jutkiewicz has a documentary-like fluidity, and the production design by Carmen Navis and costumes from Christina Flannery look credible and authentic, right down to the tawdry brown furniture and heavy deployment of denim.

Production companies: An Amasia Entertainment, G-Base production
Cast: Olivia Colman, Alice Englert, Walton Goggins, Kaitlyn Dever, Thomas Mann, Lewis Pullman, Jim Gaffigan, Annie Tedesco, Erik Andrews, Catherine Albers, Katherine Deboer             
Directors-screenwriters: Britt Poulton, Dan Madison Savage
Producers: Bradley Gallo, Michael A. Helfant, Gerard Butler, Alan Siegel, Danielle Robinson
Executive producers: William C. Gallo, Michael Leahy
Co-executive producer: Adam L. Newbold
Co-producer: Daniel Kaslow

Director of photography: Brett Jutkiewicz
Production designer: Carmen Navis
Costume designer: Christina Flannery
Editor: Joshua Raymond Lee
Music: Garth Stevenson
Casting: John McAlary, Orly Kate Sitowitz
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Dramatic Competition)

Sales: Amasia

98 minutes