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Them That Follow
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by Jay Seaver

"Fringe but familiar."
4 stars

SCREENED AT INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL BOSTON 2019: Movies like "Them That Follow" often have a hard time finding the right balance of respect and alarm in regard to the fringes of society where their characters exist, and in this case filmmakers Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage maybe veer too far toward the respectful. They've got too fine a cast to not make a good movie, but the naturally soapy elements get a bit blunted by not wanting to be insensitive and exploitative where its snake-handling community is concerned.

Lemuel (Walton Goggins) is the preacher for that community, seemingly sincere in his beliefs but also experienced enough with how the outside world reacts to them to lay low. He's got a daughter, Mara (Alice Englert), who has been expected to marry his deacon Garret (Lewis Pullman) for some time, though she's really got eyes for Augie (Thomas Mann); his parents Hope (Olivia Colman) and Zeke (Jim Gaffigan) are part of Lemuel's flock, but he doesn't attend. It's a situation that is only likely to become more tense as Lemuel takes in Dilly (Kaitlyn Dever), an impressionable young teen whose parents have abandoned her; a parishioner is bitten during services; and Mara misses a period.

There's not a whole lot of clutter to this film, which is likely part of the point. Though law enforcement is mentioned and some shuffling goes on to avoid Lemuel being charged with any injuries or deaths that occur at his services, they're not seen directly very often; Dilly's junkie mother is most noted for her absence and the mess she leaves behind. Maybe it's just summer, but there's no sign that Dilly is attending school, and though Augie clearly has things going on outside of this community, that side is similarly seldom glimpsed. It's an arrangement that can often diminish how cult-like this group seems, which should lead to a bigger impact when the more extreme facets of their faith become important, but more often just makes it feel like this story could take place in any community built around faith. The broad strokes apply to so many cases that this one could use being more specific at times.

It does, eventually, but sometimes it seems as though the story isn't quite built to get the most out of it. Consider the two places of worship we see, which function as the two sides of this community's faith: There's a lovely outdoor chapel, all green with even the cross covered in moss and the pews seeming to grow out of the ground, a spiritual place that emphasizes the congregants' connection to God's creation; its flip side is a dark, window-less lodged with a locked box of venomous serpents in the center, an unnatural secret place of shame where power is affirmed and sins are punished. It might have worked a bit better if they had appeared in that order, a dark underbelly revealed rather than a pleasant escape. The inevitable sequence after a character is bitten has potent symbolism - the venom one's family's faith injects doing damage until it must be cut away - but it's also very much what one would expect.

A good cast can put a fair amount of flesh on those bones, though, and this movie's is strong. Alice Elgort could potentially be a bit of a blank at the center, especially since the filmmakers pointedly have her spend a fair amount of time staring into the distance with little to do but ponder (it's noteworthy that Mara only smiles a couple times in the film, both when with Augie), but she's good at putting across that Mara has a fair handle on what she wants even if it takes a little effort to untangle that from how she was brought up. You can sort of see that upbringing in Kaitlyn Dever's Dilly - she's not quite Mara minus about five years, but she shows how the promise of being looked after and cared about can overpower someone who's otherwise curious, playing on their empathy.

Around them, there's a team that can give exceptionally solid support, notably Olivia Colman and Jim Gaffigan as Hope & Zeke Slaughter, two married members of the flock. They do a fine job of highlighting how sometimes later converts are can be the more zealous, as Hope's tattoos and worldliness bump against her fierce commitment to the church, while Gaffigan's Zeke seems to take more for granted, making his later struggles more difficult. And of course there's Walton Goggins, playing Lemuel as almost certainly sincere but not necessarily a good person because of that, with a survival instinct that never seems like him just flipping a switch but lets him be almost apologetically ruthless. It's an intriguing flip side to his work in the first season of Justified, where the grift is similar but the motivations are inverted.

"Them That Follow" seldom truly surprises; when the makers are basically sympathetic to the characters despite not being fond of their situation, there's only so many places a film can go. The virtues of this film are how well it articulates those sympathies, how little time it wastes, and how the last act does create a sense of ongoing dread. It makes this a good movie even if it seldom makes the leap toward being a great one.

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originally posted: 08/16/19 03:33:05
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2019 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2019 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2019 South by Southwest Film Festival For more in the 2019 South by Southwest Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: Independent Film Festival Boston 2019 For more in the Independent Film Festival Boston 2019 series, click here.

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  02-Aug-2019 (R)
  DVD: 29-Oct-2019


  DVD: 29-Oct-2019

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