#NBFF20: ‘Them That Follow’
Celebrating its 20th year, the Newport Beach Film Festival highlights films from every corner of the world in a week-long showcase. We’re highlighting some of the festival’s most noteworthy features, documentaries, and more.
From writer/director duo Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage, Them That Follow is a melodrama that is set deep in the mountains of Appalachia where an insular Pentecostal church lurks in secret. Their interpretation of Mark 16:18—”They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover”—is quite literal: faith is tested with the deadly fangs of the rattlesnake. A slow burn with a fantastic cast, Them That Follow bites deep into religious zealotry and crisis of faith.
Alice Englert delivers a suitably restrained performance as Mara, whose faith has begun to waver in the face of romance. She finds herself torn between the nonbeliever, Auggie (Thomas Mann), and her “fiancé,” Garret (Lewis Pullman). However, there’s no room for shades of gray in a society that deals only in black and white. Complicating matters further is the fact that her father leads the church.
Pastor Lemuel (Walton Goggins, who is excellent as usual) doesn’t quite rule the patriarchal, misogynist clan, but he might as well. He charms people and snakes alike, using the latter to test the former. Are you of God, or of the Devil? Only the snakes can say. His words hold sway with Auggie’s parents, Hope (Oscar-winner Olivia Colman) and Zeke (Jim Gaffigan in a surprisingly poignant dramatic turn). Yet, Lemuel, both sinister and sincere, does seem to truly care for his flock despite his methods.
For all its systematic oppression, the church itself isn’t made out to be the villain; Satan and his tests, his temptations, and his tresspasses are to blame…or so we’re led to believe. Poulton and Savage avoid demonizing even the most overbearing figures, giving Goggins and Colman room to humanize their respective zealots—it works. These are real people, not caricatures, and it’s up to the viewer to determine where the real evil lies.
The plot is simple with reveals that want to shock, but don’t—at least not until the third act. It’s the character work that really drives the film, and though the story will rarely surprise you, the performances will captivate you. Slow and methodical, Them That Follow may tell an archetypal love story, but it tells it well.