Written and Directed by: Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage
Starring: Olivia Colman, Kaitlyn Dever, Alice Englert, Jim Gaffigan, Walton Goggins, Thomas Mann, Lewis Pullman
The mood, or rather atmosphere in story telling is equally as important as the cast and the story itself. Mood can be derived from the performances or characters, from the setting or the period in which a story is set.. Horror films, which I detested as a kid are usually pretty good about setting the mood, their goal is to scare an audience, offer a rush we wouldn’t normally experience. Stories that peer into the darker side of religion without getting into the supposed horrors are equally as effective.
“Them That Follow” from the writing-directing duo of Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage straddles the line between the two end of this genre, managing to evoke more tension than scares.
The mood in “Them That Follow” is set by the mysterious nature of the characters and their situation. The story is set on a commune of serpent handlers as the pastor, Lemuel Childs (Walton Goggins) prepares to give away his daughter, Mara (Alice Englert) in marriage to Garret (Lewis Pullman).
As the story evolves, we learn what a tightly-knit society Pastor Childs has created for his clan, using snakes to cleanse those who are not of pure faith. Mara tries to hide numerous things, things that would be perceived as mischievous for an ordinary teenager, but are more serious given the environment they live in.
That’s at least the implication that Poulton and Savage want to convey as the story unfolds. They let on early about Mara’s secret. It’s the how’s and why’s that the story works out in the form of Oscar winner Olivia Colman as Hope Slaughter. Since Mara and Lemuel live alone, Hope is put in charge of the final details of Mara’s wedding.
In a rather shocking scene, Hope learns Mara’s secret as well. The level of violation surprised me and yet, I appreciated the viscerality of the experience because it seemed natural to the setting of the film. In the context of the story, it also makes sense that Mara would endure the ritualistic side of the preparations in order to find her path forward.
The discovery of Mara’s secret is kept from Lemuel as Garret continues to try and court Mara, an awkwardness in the film that supports her later decisions. It certainly reinforces Lemuel’s dominance both over the society of the commune and as a father. Goggins, who manages to evoke a strong sense of fear, rational or otherwise is a key aspect to Mara’s struggles.
Colman plays Hope with the same vigor as she approached Queen Anne in “The Favourite” last year: a matronly quality with a no-nonsense hard edge which supports Lemuel’s hard-nosed take on his own daughter.
The challenge is that “Them That Follows” spends so much time building the environment that it fails to tell a truly compelling story. The film is worth watching for the rich performances, but fails to capture the spirit it tried to evoke.
2.5 out of 4