Them That Follow
THE FOLLOWING REVIEW CONTAINS MILD STORY SPOILERS
Them That Follow is set in the world of a small, Appalachian, snake handling, Pentecostal community lead by Preacher, Walton Goggins. The preacher’s daughter is torn between a regular, decent chap who just doesn’t attend church very much and an absolute ass who does. Sadly, she decides to marry the ass but is pregnant from the other guy. Thus, the stage is set for a very mediocre, mostly dull story about a bunch of deluded idiots making a series of really stupid decisions.
One of these, magnificently idiotic, decisions is that when the man she actually loves goes to church to show her how much she means to him, he gets bitten by a snake and then his own parents (Oscar winner Olivia Coleman and comedian Jim Gaffigan – yeah I don’t know why they’re in this either) decide that faith in God will combat the snake venom. When God doesn’t do that, because, even if God existed, why would they? The Dad decides to power saw his own son’s arm off. Yup. You read that right. Send him to hospital? Nahhhh
The reason why I bring all this up is to say – what’s the point in this film?
It’s set up, I suppose, like one of those backwoods, Oscar-bait, “realistic” human dramas that tackle real issues like the church, family, love, youth, family, abuse etc. (Sort of Winter’s Bone but with snakes) but if you start to examine any of that, in any way, you keep coming back to the whole “snake handling, Pentecostal community” thing and the fact that it’s called “Them That Follow”. How relevant and realistic can it be if the decisions and conflicts your protagonists make are all guided or informed by a situation that only a tiny population of the world, let alone your audience, have any experience in?
If you mean to highlight the insanity of certain sects of religions, which your title and the actions in your film seem to dictate that you do, then your subject matter either belongs in a documentary or you are shooting fish in a barrel. If your opinion, as mine is, that you’d have to be mad to believe blood and thunder preachers who wave snakes around, then, as I have said before, you have disdain for your protagonists and why should I care about their dilemmas if you don’t.
However, if you mean to insist that humans make shit difficult for themselves and religion only muddies those waters rather than clarifies them, then, firstly, you are stating something so obvious I would suggest it’s been stated enough but, beyond that, you needed to either tell a different story or have a character in the film that was an audience surrogate, or characters in the film that belonged to other religions and not just Pentecostals.
The other thing that kept running through my head was – how exactly does a film like this get made?
When you can spit and hit a writer or a director trying to get a film made that sounds interesting, complex, weird, wonderful and creative but can’t get funding - here is an indie film, that attracted big indie names and is getting a pretty reasonable release but I don’t really know why, exactly.
This question gets even more puzzling and complex when you consider that it was the writer/directors debut feature.
Fairly little is known, right now, about the writer/directors Dan Madison Savage and Britt Poulton. I couldn’t find anything about Dan Madison Savage but Britt Poulton was interviewed by Women and Hollywood for the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Raised a Mormon, the story is pulled from the struggle she felt when figuring out her own identity and values in her teen years and trying to juggle those with her family and their religion. This, of course, makes perfect sense. Setting that struggle amongst snake handling lunatics, really doesn’t – without that “this is really about my Mormon upbringing, but I didn’t want to piss those people off” context.
Even if we ignore the story or ignore how the film ever came to be or how it attracted the actors that it did (I assume that it’s something to do with the fact that so few dramas and chances for "acting" exist these days – but even I don’t know if that is true anymore) is the film, at the very least, made well?
I am sad to say, no.
Outside of some uneven editing and boring framing choices, the film makes the absolute, film-making sin of using hand held camera work, even, and especially, during dialogue scenes. It's lazy film-making. It doesn't make your film seem more realistic. It doesn't "put me into the action" or "help elevate the tension". It is a sloppy, unimaginative and irritating technique that I see entirely too much in indie and even big budget studio films. If I am watching your film and instead of engaging with the characters, or even trying to appreciate the acting, I am thinking “hold the fucking camera still! Why are you shaking the damn thing in his face, pull back a bit!” then I am not pulled into the action and I am not suspending disbelief. While the whole film isn’t shot this way, enough of it was that I just got annoyed. Leave documentary style shooting for documentaries. You’re making a movie - even if you think you’re making a deeply important “art film” about relevant and engaging human emotions – you’re making a movie that people have to sit, watch, hopefully enjoy or engage with in some way and take something from it when they’re done.
Entirely too many indie films have the same approach to this stuff. There is this unwritten rule that worthy films are better. That films about poor people or religious people or people in different communities or whatever are BETTER and because you are telling more worthy, better, human stories you should do it with naturalism and shaky, documentary style camera work, the pacing should be slow, the score should be earnest and everyone should mumble and not explain themselves too much.
Tell a fucking good story, with a good script, strong characters and shoot it in a way that I can see it properly and whether those people are fighting aliens or sitting around a rough-hewn wooden table up a mountain somewhere discussing root vegetables, as a member of the human race, I promise I will get something from it. George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead says more about regular humanity and the world in which we live than a 101 Moonlights or The Florida Projects combined.
I really do not mean to needlessly piss all over Them That Follow, as I said before, it’s the writer/directors first feature film. Everyone needs a first and this was clearly born out of something personal to them. I genuinely hope, during their second film, that they find the story balance and the tripod that they need.
On the plus side, the story is clear and concise, I think more could’ve been done to really highlight the humanity over the religion or to have had a counterpoint in the movie, but you’re not confused at any point about what’s going on and who has to do what. The film definitely gets more exciting as it goes on, yes it also gets more ridiculous but acts 2 and 3 were compelling enough that I slowly forgot about the director of photography needing the bathroom. In terms of photography, when the camera is still, the film looks very good. The lighting and the use of location is definitely evocative and helps the storytelling. Lastly, the acting isn't that bad. Goggins, Coleman, Gaffigan are all decent, as expected and Alice Englert is very strong in the lead. Also fair play to everyone who had to handle or act with the snakes, that was really well done.
All I can really say, at the end of the day, is that it's just not really my cup of tea.
Them that Follow is out in New York and Los Angeles on August 2nd.