The Movie Waffler New to Netflix - THEM THAT FOLLOW | The Movie Waffler

New to Netflix - THEM THAT FOLLOW

them that follow review
A young woman is oppressed by her isolated religious community.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Britt Poulton, Dan Madison Savage

Starring: Alice Englert, Kaitlyn Dever, Walton Goggins, Olivia Colman, Thomas Mann, Jim Gaffigan, Lewis Pullman

them that follow review

Of the many American variations of Christianity, few are as intriguing as the Pentecostal sect of snake handlers that dwell in the remote woods of the Appalachians. Inspired by the Bible quote "They shall take up serpents," snake handlers believe that allowing venomous snakes to make contact with their bodies is a test of their faith. If the serpent doesn't bite you, you're strong of faith. If the snake sinks its fangs into your flesh, your soul is corrupt. It's a lot more dramatic than a sip of wine and a tasteless wafer, so it's odd that this milieu has so rarely been explored on screen. All that springs to mind is an X-Files episode, and strange as it may seem, writer/directors Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage's Them That Follow appears to be the first feature film set in the world of this curious practice.

them that follow review

Walton Goggins, an actor who has found himself pigeonholed as "that creepy redneck guy", plays Lemuel, the pastor of a small snake handling sect buried up a mountain in the Appalachians. His daughter Mara (Alice Englert) shares his devotion, despite having it tested by her agnostic boyfriend Augie (Thomas Mann). Mara and Augie keep their relationship a secret from the community, as Mara has been lined up to marry church member Garrett (Lewis Pullman). Trouble is, Mara is pregnant with Augie's child, unbeknown to Augie or anyone else on the mountain.

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Them That Follow may boast a unique backdrop, but its storyline is as clichéd as they come, yet another spin on Romeo and Juliet, with Mara and Augie posited as lovers from two sides of the spiritual divide whose dalliance threatens to tear their community apart. Add a teen pregnancy and you're in the domain of the soap opera. There are no narrative surprises along the way, and the film ticks a series of obvious storytelling boxes as it slouches its way to a predictable climax.

them that follow review

A potentially compelling subplot regarding the recent death of a 15-year-old boy during a sermon is brought up early on, but fades into the background. The logistics of how Lemuel makes a living preaching to a congregation whose numbers could barely fill a football team are never hinted at. The world of Them That Follow is little more than poorly conceived set dressing.

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Poulton and Savage present all this with a level of earnestness that suggests they believe their movie has something fresh to say about religion, and in particular religion's oppression of women. There are plenty of ways to critique religion, but choosing a sect as miniscule as snake handlers seems like a case of punching down. Poulton and Savage appear to have made their mind up regarding the people who inhabit such communities, and as such none of their characters come across as anything more than one-dimensional stereotypes of people driven to irrational extremes by their faith. Nobody we meet here is granted so much as a moment that marks them out as a living, breathing human rather than a poorly written vessel for some anti-religious confirmation bias. Compare this cheap piece of bullying to the many Middle Eastern films of recent years that have risked their filmmakers' careers and lives to critique the application and enforcement of Islam in their countries. What those filmmakers understand is that there's a big difference between standing up to a religion and looking down on its followers.

them that follow review

Is there a purpose to Them That Follow beyond allowing its target audience of liberal atheists to feel intellectually and morally superior to its subjects? And is this film really any different to those one-sided Christian propaganda movies that fare so well in American cinemas? It looks more professionally made and boasts a cast of talented actors (how is Olivia Colman in this?), but a polemic is a polemic, regardless of which side of the debate it represents.

Them That Follow is on Netflix UK/ROI now.