A rumination on the dangers of zealotry and blind devotion to faith, Them That Follow centers on Mara (Alice Englert), a young woman from the Appalachian mountains whose father, Pastor Lemuel (Walton Goggins), leads a congregation of Pentecostal snake handlers. In Pastor Lemuel’s church, poisonous snakes are used to test a person’s faith: if the serpent strikes, the worshiper must repent for their sins and pray for God to save them, because medical treatment is not an option.
Lemuel is pressuring Mara to accept the marriage proposal of devout follower Garret (Lewis Pullman), but in this patriarchal society where women are expected to remain subservient to their fathers and husbands, Mara isn’t sure that she can make that kind of commitment to Garret. Perhaps it’s because there seems to be a darkness hiding just below the surface of Garret’s generous and thoughtful demeanor, or perhaps it’s because Mara is drawn to Augie (Thomas Mann), a local boy whose parents are members of Lemuel’s flock, but who has little interest in allowing dangerous reptiles to pass judgment on his faith.
Mara also harbors a secret, one that could not only destroy her own life but also have dangerous implications for her father’s church. As she struggles to make the right choice, she arouses the suspicions of her closest friend, Dilly (Kaitlyn Dever) and Augie’s mother Hope (Olivia Colman), setting into motion a chain of events that will have devastating consequences for the entire community.
Making their feature-length debut with this Sundance entry, directors Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage paint a vivid picture of devotion and how it permeates every aspect of their characters’ lives. For some, like Augie’s father Zeke (Jim Gaffigan in a small but impressive dramatic turn), the church is the center of their existence, and every good thing they have can be traced back to their faith. For others like Mara, the church offers more questions than answers: is God punishing her for making the wrong choices, or is the pain she endures all part of a larger plan?
Breathing fire and brimstone from the pulpit and speaking in tongues while casting out demons, Goggins is top-notch as leader of this backwoods community, and fans of Justified will no doubt be reminded of the season when Goggins’ charismatic villain, Boyd Crowder, became a preacher. There are notable similarities, but where viewers might have been given cause to question Crowder’s devotion, Pastor Lemuel gives us no reason for doubt.
Colman, still basking in critical acclaim from her brilliant work in The Favourite, showcases her versatility in a meaty supporting role that requires her to be stern, loving, matronly and distraught — often within the same scene. It’s a performance that has generated some much-deserved buzz among festivalgoers, and might very well find her back on the awards season ballots next fall.
The cast of Them That Follow is uniformly excellent, but as the de facto lead of this ensemble piece, Englert is tasked with much of the emotional heavy lifting, and she handles it with admirable aplomb. Of particular note is a scene where she finally stands up for herself, the furrowed brow and worried expression that she carries for most of the film washing away to reveal a countenance of calm, quiet resolve. To call her a heroine might not be entirely accurate, but the path she chooses from this moment onward is certainly heroic.