Two things stand out about Britt Poulton and Dan Savage’s Them That Follow. First, it’s an incredibly tough sit, as it prompted several walk-outs during its premiere screening at the 2019 Dallas International Film Festival, one of whom loudly proclaimed behind me that they were “done with it, and would be waiting in the lobby.” Second, no one does Southern-fried menace quite as convincingly as actor Walton Goggins.
As the father to young Mara (Alice Englert), who is quietly trying to find a way to separate herself from the oppressive environment she finds herself, Goggins is especially complex. Portraying a preacher to a congregation of followers in the thickened Appalachia mountains, it should also be noted their belief in the usage of poisonous snakes during their services becomes a central metaphor for Goggins’ serpentine hold over their lives. Straddling the line between deep-seated faith, however misguided or wrong we may feel it is, and staunch patriarchal control, his Lemuel isn’t a bad person, but a deeply flawed one.
The separation young Mara tries to create comes in the form of local boyfriend Auggie (Thomas Mann), himself struggling with the desire to lead a normal life after breaking from the congregation, despite the God-fearing feelings of his own parents, wonderfully played by Olivia Colman and Jim Gaffigan. Complicating matters even more is that Mara is forced to marry devout follower Garrett (Lewis Pullman), set up by her father whose dedication to the old ways of doing things becomes a malevolent crushing of Mara’s identity.
From this somewhat twisted teen-angled love triangle, Them That Follow swaggers towards a conclusion that weaves together several strands, slowly tightening the dread that culminates in the aforementioned scene-of-many-walkout-inducing-moments. I have to give the film credit for not mincing emotions or images as it winds down.
Also written by Poulton, and Savage, the strength of Them That Follow lies in the committed performances. It also features star-on-the-rise Kaitlyn Dever of Booksmart (2019) as the more devout best friend of Mara. Despite all the strong performances, however, Them That Follow rattles the nerves but never really stayed with me. It’s well crafted and certainly understands how to marinate its brooding subject matter, but it’s a film that feels warmed over from several other efforts. Everything from the soundtrack to Brett Jutkiewicz’s tactile, handheld cinematography denote a concerted effort of independent film moroseness, whose setting and character development follow expected paths.
Portions of this review have been previously published as part of my coverage of the 2019 Dallas International Film Festival.
The film opens on Friday, August 9 at the Angelika Film Center in Dallas.