Snake Handlers Take Center Stage in This Narrative Slow-Burn.
DIRECTED BY: BRITT POULTON AND DAN MADISON SAVAGE/2019
With one short film, Lizard King, under their belts, directors Britt Poulton and Dan Madision Savage make their full-length directorial debuts with Them That Follow.
Both are writers; Britt Poulton worked on the crews of Insidious and Paranormal Activity, serving as assistances to director James Wan, and as a second assistant to Mr. Blum, whose Blumhouse Productions produced the film Paranormal Activity. Her opportunity to see these horror films up close in her previous positions have also lent themselves to this film. While not a horror film, Them That Follow benefits from her ability to apply what she learned on those films in terms of building tension. Them That Follow slow burns through the first two acts before satisfyingly culminating in the obvious payoffs of the third act.
Evenly, and methodically, paced, Them That Follow immediately alludes to the central conflict of the film.
Them That Follow stars an impressive cast with top billing going to last year’s Best Actress Oscar Winner, Olivia Colman (The Favourite), though this film’s true lead is played by Kaitlyn Dever. The film also includes performances by Walton Goggins, Lewis Pullman, Jim Gaffigan, Alice Englert, and Thomas Mann.
Set in the Appalachians, Dilly (Dever) lives with her father, Lemuel (Goggins) who is a Pentecostal pastor at a local church. This particular congregation is committed to the practice of handling deadly serpents to prove their devotion to God. With the help of her best friend Mara (Englert), Dilly tries to navigate the trials and temptations of life while holding on to her faith.
Evenly, and methodically, paced, Them That Follow immediately alludes to the central conflict of the film, namely that despite being courted for marriage by a boy named Garret (Pullman), Dilly’s heart has been given to another, a boy named Augie (Mann). Augie’s parents Hope (Colman) and Zeke (Gaffigan) are devout members of Pastor Lemuel’s church, though Augie has walked away from the faith. In contrast, Garret seems to be very much rooted in it, to the delight of Pastor Lemuel. Dilly, however, is carrying around a secret that slowly begins to unravel this tight-knit faith community, and threatens to destroy everything she holds dear.
While dealing with a seemingly extreme Christian sect (snake handlers), Them That Follows is never antagonistic towards the issue of faith, or even of this subculture within the Christian faith. Instead, the film allows us to be drawn in to the day to day living of these individuals, who are often poor, and see how their faith is a natural extension of who they are, often serving as a positive in their lives to help them handle the struggles, temptations, and trials that exist in that part of the United States. Pastor Lemuel is a sincere man, even if his beliefs seem extreme, as they might even to other Christians. It is this sincerity of the characters in this story, along with the pacing of the film, that helps build the tension properly, with a grounded authenticity that helps the audience identify with this community, even if their practices are foreign to the viewer.
Dever confidently carries this film, and Colman is once again brilliant in her role. I wish there were even more scenes of these two women together, as they had real chemistry in their interactions. Goggins is equally as good. Walton Goggins has often played shady characters, and so I enjoyed his casting because I think the audience is going to naturally look upon his role here with a lot of distrust based on some of these previous shady characters that he has played (see Ant-Man and the Wasp, Tomb Raider (2018), or The Hateful Eight). This distrust also ratchets up the tension for no other reason than Goggins’ previous roles feeding the cynical distrust many viewers might have as they watch a preacher such as this, especially given the way that preachers have been portrayed in previous films over the decades.
Jim Gaffigan is a pleasant surprise. While not having a large role, he makes a hard turn from his typical comedic side and gives a strong performance alongside Colman, who plays his wife. Englert, Mann, and Pullman are also very strong in their roles. Lewis Pullman, son of Bill Pullman, plays his character deftly, and reminded me a little bit of Paul Dano’s role of Paul Sunday in P.T. Anderson’s There Will Be Blood.
He effectively establishes his character as one person, but as Dilly’s secret begins to emerge, Pullman is able to reveal a subtly repressed, yet progressing, darker side to his nature. It is largely effective, but the script seems to upend Garret with a hard pivot to this darkness that almost disrupts the tone of the rest of the film. It is Pullman’s subtle portrayal of his character’s transition towards a darker nature that saves the film from going completely off the rails in the third act. He is able to largely keep a consistency and authenticity in his performance to make it appear he is playing the same character we meet in the beginning of the film, albeit under a lot of stress, rather than the caricature of the character the script seems to call for based on his disturbing actions.
Them That Follow is a strong film, and an interesting one, that mostly gets it right. Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage show great promise, as both writers and directors, based on this script, and they found a great cast to bring their vision to life.
Them That Follow opens in the Houston area at the Alamo Drafthouse La Centerra, Dunvale 30 AMC, and Willowbrook 24 AMC, as well as select theaters in other parts of the country on August 9, 2019.