Despite its stellar cast, including Kaitlyn Dever and Olivia Colman, this indie cult drama slithers away from itself a bit too often.
Cults have long been a subject of fascination in pop culture — in a year where not one, but four Charlie Manson movies have come out amid the 50th anniversary of the Manson murders, we’re clearly infatuated with the banality of evil, how easy it is for charismatic men to build a community that serves their own ego by subsuming the free will of its subjects. In Them That Follow, we get a glimpse of that kind of patriarchal terror, but it’s a shame to see it wrapped in such a workmanlike domestic melodrama.
The structure of this particular cult is Indiana Jones’ worst nightmare: an evangelical commune in the Appalachias run by a firebrand preacher named Lemuel Childs (Walton Goggins), who lures in his followers with the cleansing power of snake handling. (It’s a common practice in the Appalachias, turns out, and has been a significant part of several isolated churches since the ’50s). For these folks, the rattlesnake is the ultimate arbiter of righteousness; if the snake spares you, you’re purified. But if it doesn’t, well…
The community leers at outsiders and follows Rev. Childs’ strict codes of conduct; this extends to the pastor’s daughter, Mara (Alice Englert), who quickly learns — by way of a stealthily stolen pregnancy test from member Hope’s (Olivia Colman) convenience store — that she’s with child. The father is ex-member (and Hope’s son) Augie (Thomas Mann), whose continued presence in the community is a source of tension for Hope, her husband Zeke (Jim Gaffigan) and, of course, Mara herself. He wants them to leave “this god-forsaken place,” but Mara’s held back by her devotion to the church.
This complicates matters, of course, as she’s already been promised to Childs’ acolyte Garret (Lewis Pullman), who carries a distinctly overbearing desire for her. As Mara contemplates her next steps, and tensions escalate between the tightly-coiled community, a life-or-death decision forces her to decide between her family and her free will.
For writer/directors Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage, the cult itself feels like a lightly-stylized backdrop for an otherwise run-of-the-mill rural drama. Apart from the snake tradition, and the overly paranoid nature of the supporting characters, there’s little exploration of the church’s customs and community. Lemuel’s church is frequently packed, but the rest of the time it feels like there are only six people living on the entire mountain. The cinematography, a washed-out collection of rusty browns and faded pastels, approximates the overcast bleakness of Appalachian mountain communities, but there’s little to set itself apart otherwise.
When the focus slips from Mara, however, aspects of Them That Follow sing.
And then there’s Englert, whose Mara is an underwhelmingly blank void. Englert’s fine in the role, but there’s an emptiness to her character that threatens to swallow her whole, especially when surrounded by more vibrant performances from Goggins, Colman, and Pullman. The film had a greater chance to explore the patriarchal pressures of young women in these kinds of revival cults, with their apocalyptic aims and hyper-literal interpretations of the Bible’s take on gender roles. But Mara’s character is frustratingly passive, and Poulton and Savage miss opportunities to make even that passivity compelling.
When the focus slips from Mara, however, aspects of Them That Follow sing. Goggins is perfect casting as a terrifyingly appealing preacher; it feels like his entire career has been leading to theatrically-menacing characters like this, and he can play these roles in his sleep. Colman, as well, has the hangdog eyes and wailing anguish perfectly suited to her devotee, especially as circumstances force her to intellectualize away the violence of the cult when it hits even her family. Pullman (son of Bill) is also pretty damn gripping as the purest distillation of the cult’s vision of male power, as his entitlement to Mara’s body provides some of the film’s more melodramatic turns.
One wonders how much more interesting Them That Follows would have been had it switched its focus instead to Dilly — Mara’s young friend, played by Booksmart‘s Kaitlyn Dever, who’s having a hell of a year if we’re being honest. A true believer now orphaned by her parents (who leave the church offscreen early in the movie) Dilly’s few scenes are a far more compelling glimpse into the way cults subsume and commodify young women by stripping their identity away from them. Dever’s vulnerable, even playful at times, even when she’s conflicted. She carries the emotional grip of the community with greater clarity than Englert, whose Mara spends much of the film in a worried frown.
It never seems like Mara was ever happy in the cult, really; when our main character never feels the joys of the place she doesn’t want to leave, how are we as an audience supposed to feel tension about whether she’ll actually leave? Maybe if we knew more about the cult this movie is about, we’d have a better idea.
Them That Follow is currently available in limited release.