I’m struck by just how at home Walton Goggins seems as some redneck pulled from a holler deep in Kentucky or elsewhere in the Appalachians. First made apparent in his epic run as Boyd Crowder on FX’s Justified, Goggins returns to the role with forceful conviction playing Lemuel, a Pentecostalist preacher in Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage’s Them That Follow. There’s never a moment when you doubt the authenticity of Goggins in action, thought, or speech. And yet, here, he plays second fiddle to lead Alice Englert who’s playing his daughter Mara. This despite the presence of Oliva Coleman, fresh off her Oscar win, and an as changed Jim Gaffigan as you’ll see on camera, relegated to a near soulless turn of his affable self.
In this tale of young love and spiritual liberation, the whole marvelous cast is playing backup to Englert’s Mara who embraces the lead with the same fervor of one of her father’s congregation embracing a rattler. It’s a deeply unsettling look into a corner of America most may have forgotten or would be content ignoring. Them That Follow is a powerful and intense drama that gains steam from the moment it opens with Mara meeting a young man, Augie (Thomas Mann), in the woods and it does it without being overbearing. The dread is an implied one, brought to the forefront whenever venomous rattlesnakes rear their heads, but like the biblical serpent of old, it’s always there, whispering from just offscreen of the possibilities that may come. It’s a worst-case scenario of what happens when the indecisiveness of youth meets the reckless conviction of age. Yet, it ends with hope.
Them That Follow
Directors: Britt Poulton, Dan Madison Savage
Release Date: June 21, 2019
Poulton and Savage (who also co-wrote the film) do a masterful job of showing/not telling (no unnecessary juxtaposition through third-party dialog here) a lot about Mara up front. She’s passionate, perhaps most for her father and her father’s faith, but perhaps even more so for the snakes her daddy uses to spread the word of God to his small, but devout group of followers. It’s there in the opening, “Aren’t they beautiful?” Mara asks Augie. Yet, she’s nuanced, and while she might follow the path of the righteous, and the path ordained to her by her father, she’ll do it only so far as serves her, quickly allowing that one shall steal (if they need to take a pregnancy test without anyone knowing) and that one shall hitchhike even when daddy says don’t (if one feels it’s easier than walking to town with one’s friend).
What’s most compelling about Englert’s performance is just how understated it is. It’s a generally quiet film to begin with, and her interpretation of her character is so possessive in nature that she hardly needs to do more than remain expressive throughout to convey her emotional confusion and distress as several influences vie for loyalty as the tale is told. In one scene, the look of simultaneous scorn/shock/confusion/repulsion that hits her face when Lemuel tells her to take off an old dress of her mother’s is so beautifully acted as to be used in the actor’s handbook for portrayals of obedient children dealing with complex father figures. And it’s on the heels of utter adoration at seeming praise. That switch from A to B was phenomenal and representative of an actress’s complete understanding of complex emotional responses at a young age.
The heart of the story is the people of this seemingly small, remote community. There’s Lemuel and his daughter, Mara. There’s Augie, the boy Mara first meets in the woods. He’s got parents too: Hope (Coleman) and Zeke (Gaffigan). Then, there’s a boy that’s asked for Mara’s hand in marriage, Garret (Lewis Pullman—you may recognize from a wonderful turn in Bad Times at the El Royal, and will soon see again in Top Gun: Maverick). Rounding out the principles is Dilly (Kaitlyn Dever, who had a run on Justified with Goggins). A love triangle forms at the heart of this snake’s nest between Mara, Garret, and Augie. It’s complicated by the usual influences: familial obligation, religion, jealousy, inspired lunacy, and the compelling urge to prove one’s love versus the compelling need to avenge love spurned.
Throughout it all though, the storytelling is never over the top, preferring subtle coercing to aggressive narrative drive. Much of it is pacing, as layers are peeled away, they reveal additional motivations that demonstrate just how quickly the situation can go awry and how quickly secrets can become explosive impetus. It’s those secrets, much like the snakes stored in pine boxes in the barn where the congregation meets, that hint at violence and chaos. The more we see how deeply the various parties are convinced of their own truth, the more you know there’s the potential for something to go wrong. The snakes are perhaps the least subtle way of hinting at this from the get-go, outside of their integral role to the examination of this sect of Protestantism.
Integral to the film’s success too, and not to be outdone by the ensemble cast, are the directors’ scenic choices and the cinematography by Brett Jutkiewicz. This movie’s location scouting is perfect. Every location is spot-on and adds authenticity to the film’s narrative near as much as the performances. I’d go so far as to say that the performances are elevated by the surroundings as that authenticity justifies them, supports them, and gives them license to flourish in the umbrella of believability. There’s a lot to be said for directors who can bring their film to life by choosing the right atmosphere to do it, especially given the visual nomenclature of such a specific community like this one. Then there’s the cinematography which quickly stole my heart. It was a quiet admiration at first, with multiple shot selections standing out as I watched Them That Follow, but as time’s continued, it’s only strengthened my appreciation for the film. Jutkiewicz has a true eye. His shot selection and composition are top-line and appropriate to our aesthetic age—Poulton even remarked as much to me in an interview, that she wouldn’t be surprised to see him winning an Oscar soon.
All in all, Them That Follow is a visually arresting film that uses narrative tension to great effect. While you’re not going to drown in explosions or jump scares or body count, it’s just as powerful, and just as resonant. You’ll likely be exploring its quiet moments long after you’ve stopped watching.