On first viewing, Them That Follow reads like a character study of a closed-off religious sect somewhere in the Appalachian mountains. Conflicts are dealt with in-house, no one goes for formal medical treatment, and worship is held in a barn-like structure. Also, writers/directors Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage have chosen to focus on a snake handler sect of Christianity, in which snakes are used to exalt God or draped over offenders in cleansing rituals.
However, the more I think about it, Them That Follow is more of a modern-day allegory for Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden. What happens when this isolated world is no longer enough for two of its members? At the center of the film, we have young adults Mara (Alice Englert) and Augie (Thomas Mann), two relatively naïve kids raised in this small, tight-knit community. Of course, kids get curious, and it’s intimated and later proven they’ve shared the ultimate expression of human love… and Mara’s got something to show for it. The trouble is she’s promised to someone else; compounding the problem is Augie’s previous rejection of the church, the head of which is Mara’s father Lemuel (Walton Goggins).
As a metaphoric and literal representation of God, Lemuel has the final say in what his congregation does in both their spiritual and home lives. It’s a patriarchal society, evident in his encouragement of Mara’s intended mate Garret (Lewis Pullman) to “treat her like a wife” and bend her to his will. When someone crosses him, he demands fealty to the church, resorting to giving ultimatums when one makes the choice to leave. It’s not that much of a stretch to see the parallels outlining the fall from grace, Original Sin, and the exit from Paradise when viewing Lemuel as a stand-in for the Creator.
Playing another representation of the divine is Augie’s mother Hope (Olivia Colman). What’s the adage about “mother” being “the word for God on the lips and hearts of all children”? She is temperate, but only just; a harrowing development late in the film tests her faith to the point of bloodshed and mutilation, making her realize faith alone cannot save one’s earthly body. According to the rules of some of these communities, if a snake bites you during worship, it is said your faith will heal you; if you die, it was just your time. When she sees someone she loves bitten, she has to make horrible decisions regarding how it’s handled.
Maybe that’s where this film might be considered a “thriller,” as Wikipedia has dubbed it. “Thriller” is too strong a word for this slow-paced gut-boiler of a movie. This is Mara’s story, told through her eyes; nothing is included in this movie which doesn’t concern her. If a scene takes place in her absence, people are talking about her or how best to help or control her. She suffers the weight of her pregnancy, kept in secret for much of the film, even from her best friend Dilly (Kaitlyn Dever); it’s only found out during a pre-wedding “examination” mandated by the church, the details of which make me cringe as I write this.
Alice Englert shows Mara’s struggle well, emoting a muted performance fitting of her subjugated position in their community. The preacher’s daughter suddenly pregnant by a man who’s not her betrothed? It’s a little cliché, to be sure, but in a setting like this – without access to medical services or a chance to lose oneself in larger society – it’s a more volatile situation fraught with deeper-reaching consequences. Englert makes this concern a vital part of her performance, the weight of her situation visibly taking its toll on her face and mannerisms.
Likewise, Olivia Colman and Walt Goggins give themselves to their portrayals as parents forced to make the decision between the church and their loved ones. Even though Hope and Lemuel are heads of different families, Colman and Goggins step forward and ensure we listen to them as the parental unit of the piece. Goggins dials back his usual wide-eyed mania and applies a more appropriate fervor to his portrayal of a preacher who only thinks in terms of his love for God and the church he leads, not allowing human nature to interfere. By contrast, Hope can only go so far with this notion, and Colman gives it her all, guiding Hope with perfection through the various peaks and valleys into which Poulton and Savage’s script throws her.
In these parental figures, we see both sides of God – the unyielding God who delivered the Ten Plagues of Egypt and the caring God who sent food for his disciples in the desert. But Mara and Augie’s sin – with Mara bearing the brunt of the church’s patriarchal ire – causes both these portrayals of the divine to coalesce into a single unit, with their lines in the sand being drawn and held, no matter how much their humanity makes their decisions harder. It’s not meant as an accurate representation or indictment of religion. On the contrary – faith gives you strength, but part of faith is knowing when to ask for help, and Mara’s journey in Them That Follow displays this facet of faith with a solemn, dutiful courage.