Sundance 2019 – Them That Follow

One of the inevitable downsides of Sundance is that when you choose to go see one film, you’re also choosing to not see like three other films. So when the film you choose is bad, it just makes it that much worse. You start kicking yourself, wondering what could have been had you chose differently. You just feel defeated afterwards. That was my experience watching Them That Follow, the debut from writer/directors Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage.

Them That Follow takes place in an appalachian community led by Pastor Lemuel (Walton Goggins), who handles snakes in his sermons to prove his devotion to God, his daughter Mara (Alice Englert) hides a pregnancy after a secret affair with Augie (Thomas Mann) – a son of a devoted congregation member, though he has left the church – while she is engaged to Gareth (Lewis Pullman), a devoted member to Lemuel.

My favorite scene in Hail, Caesar! is when Hobie Doyle, a cowboy actor shows up to do scenes in a dignified drama where he’s supposed to talk in a refined british accent and speak elegantly, but of course he can’t because that’s just not who he is. The director (played by Ralph Fiennes) tries to walk him through how to say one line, and Hobie hilariously cannot pull it off. He is woefully out of place and there’s just nothing to be done about it. That’s how a lot of the cast feels here, just not meant for this material no matter how good they are. This film has surprisingly a lot of good actors for such a poor script. Alice Englert, Kaitlyn Dever, Olivia Colman and Lewis Pullman are all good-great actors in their own rights that sadly go to waste on rote dialogue and unambitious storytelling. They’re all doing these regional accents that just take you out of the moment because they never feel authentic. I actually like Thomas Mann, but I never want to hear him do a regional accent ever again, it was laughably bad. Jim Gaffigan is in this too, I guess he’s good in it? I don’t know, I don’t even care.

I came to watch Walton Goggins play a snake preacher, I almost passed out when I first saw he was playing this role, it’s practically fan fiction to me to have him preach sermons while holding snakes. Goggins is the only one who feels like he actually belongs in this setting. He’s trying his damndest to inject any sort of personality and swagger into this film, if you edit it down to just his preaching and praying scenes then baby, you got 20 quality minutes of film. Sidenote: Nice little Justified reunion here with Goggins and Dever.

The script is just so littered with lines of dialogue that are supposedly how these people in this region talk, but it never feels like it belongs. Every third scene a character tells another to “hush up now” and all sorts of other sayings. It just always feels like a bad imitation, it never feels authentic, and on top of it the dialogue never actually does much to inform you about these characters and setting. It just pretends to. Characters will suddenly turn on each other out of nowhere for no reason other than the writers just shrugged and didn’t know how to get to the climax otherwise, there’s just no understanding behind a lot of the character motivations. The whole “forbidden love” thing just never gains any dramatic tension, you never feel like it’s really building toward something. There’s not much visually that grabs you, it’s mostly just lazy point and shoot direction for coverage. I wanted to like a certain part of the climax (you’ll know it when you see it) but I just didn’t care enough about what was happening to admire a brief hit of body horror. This film desperately wishes it was Winter’s Bone, but lacks any of the grit and authenticity that film had.  A couple behind me were snickering at how bad this was at points, I couldn’t blame them. I wish I could have joined them, but this film isn’t even bad enough to be the kind of entertaining that you watch to laugh at, it’s just boring. On to the next one, please.

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