In depicting religious extremity, Them That Follow creates a terrifying experience that most horror films might envy. Set in a secluded in Appalachian community, the film examines Christian fundamentalism with an eye on snake-based sacraments. Them That Follow is not for them that fear snakes, however the film’s dominant terror comes not from the omnipresence of venomous creatures, but from the punishing psychosis of its setting. But beyond its ability to rattle your nerves, the film lacks a more refined degree of authenticity to make it register more deeply.
Despite her community’s intentional lack of room for secrets, Mara (Alice Englert) is amassing a few of her own. As the daughter of the local pastor Lemuel (Walton Goggins), she is expected to marry Garret (Lewis Pullman), one of the church’s devoted members. But she has been secretly in love with non-member Augie (Thomas Mann) and discovers at the film’s outset that she is pregnant with his child. Under the watchful eye of Augie’s mother and one of the pillars of the church Hope (Olivia Colman), Mara attempts to navigate her convictions and the future that is chosen for her by a society that equates repentance with wrangling with a box of caged serpents.
As told by debut director pair Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage, Them That Follow establishes the confines of this church community’s restrictions quickly in a promising first act. Unfortunately, the film labors to the audience all of these initial observations without developing them much further. By the time the film reaches its relentlessly tense climax, the characters and surroundings come off more cliche than probably intended.
The side effect is sensationalism over substance, making the film’s ritualistic selling point a bit more like a sideshow exhibit than revealing a toxic symptom of an oppressive group. You wish for more than meets the eye, but nuance never really comes.
But while the film lacks for more narrative substance, there is an exacting sense of composition in what Poulton and Savage have assembled. Despite the murk of the mountain environment, there is still absorbing texture to the tableaus created by cinematographer Brett Jutkiewicz, including presenting the wooden, ramshackle church as a lurid and sweaty box of nightmares. There’s a propulsive structure to the film, a steading mounting of anxiety that passes the film from gritty drama into full-on horror territory, that show’s Poulton and Savage know how to viscerally affect an audience.
Also on the film’s side is its invested and adept ensemble. Though Englert is asked to be its most empty canvas to some frustrating effect, and to some degree the cast elsewhere pitches things too far into the opposite end of histrionics, the film’s emptional impact falls onto their shoulders. Colman is the most specific in her impenetrability, devolving what could be the least nuanced character into a woman of selfish self-preservation. It’s Goggins that emotionally complicates the film, providing an emotionally unexpected turn only to immediately reverse, all while developing what feels like its most realized human.
Them That Follow mounts to be solely the sum of its parts, an acceptably imposing if not terribly deep debut that lives in its ability to make you quiver.