Them That Follow (4 stars)

Them That Follow

EIFF 2019: Religious fervour powers this impressive debut, starring Olivia Colman and Walton Goggins

Led by pastor Lemuel (Walton Goggins), a Pentecostal congregation reside in isolation atop an Appalachian mountain. Proving their devotion to God by handling wild snakes – if someone is bitten, they're left to fight the poison without medical attention but with plenty of prayers – the insular, rural community live out a simple, albeit patriarchal and theocratic, existence.

The pastor's daughter, Mara (played with quiet intensity by Alice Englert), has promised herself to one of the congregation (a smarmy Lewis Pullman), but behind her father's back she has been having a forbidden love affair with non-believer Augie (Thomas Mann), son of local gas station attendant Hope (Olivia Colman, in the film's standout performance). Mara, a true believer, is forced to choose between devotion to her community and her love for Augie.

While Them That Follow has a somewhat pulpy set-up, it's one first-time writer-directors Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage admirably commit themselves to. Much of what unfolds does so in slow-burn fashion – until a truly OTT climax involving a snake and an amputation – but we spend just enough time with Mara to invest in her dilemma. Cinematographer Brett Jutkiewicz skilfully captures the claustrophobia of Mara's world, somehow managing to extract the grey from the lush wooded surroundings.

In the latter half of the film, the script falters with sudden, out-of-character decisions that make little sense, but thankfully Poulton and Savage resist a faux feminist empowerment story. While the melodramatic third act will likely test the patience of some audience members, Them That Follow is an impressive first feature that gets away with its more outlandish story elements because its filmmakers and cast have enough conviction – and talent – to pull it off.

Screening on Wed 26 and Sat 29 Jun as part of the Edinburgh International Film Festival 2019. General release TBC.

Them That Follow

  • 4 stars
  • 2019
  • US
  • 1h 38min
  • 15
  • Directed by: Britt Poulton, Dan Madison Savage
  • Cast: Olivia Colman, Kaitlyn Dever, Alice Englert, Jim Gaffigan, Walton Goggins, Thomas Mann, Lewis Pullman

In a Pentecostal congregation in the remote Appalachians, Mara (Englert) has promised herself to one man but has been having an affair with nonbeliever Augie (Mann), son of the local gas station attendant (Colman). Despite a pulpy set-up and a melodramatic third act, it pulls off its more outlandish elements with sheer…