A film as atmospheric as its title, “Them That Follow” is an ambitious and impressive independent production, where the creation of mood and place is so convincing it enables us to buy into a richly melodramatic plot about a taboo romance.
A first feature by the writing and directing team of Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage, “Follow” (which debuted in competition at this year’s Sundance film festival) is set in a Pentecostal community similar to the one depicted in the classic 1967 documentary “Holy Ghost People.”
This is an insular Appalachian world where believers speak in tongues and handle venomous snakes, often rattlers, treating literally a passage in the gospel of Mark that says, “They shall take up serpents.”
Though groups like this continue to exist despite being shunned and their practice declared illegal, the intensity and specificity of their worship make it a challenge to bring to life.
Despite this, the filmmakers, who consulted with a real snake-handling church and used both rattlesnakes and non-venomous snakes for different parts of the shoot, are able to take us as far into this world — the groups themselves are deeply situated in the rural woods.
They are aided by the excellent acting of an impeccable cast, which includes an unerringly convincing Olivia Colman (who won an Oscar earlier this year as England’s historical Queen Anne in “The Favourite”), Alice Englert (of the wonderful “Ginger and Rosa”) and a dramatic role for comedian Jim Gaffigan.
All this work is necessary because “Them That Follow” attempts to do a lot. It deals with questions of faith and the consequences of belief (or lack of it) as well as taking on a story of young love and considering what happens when that belief and love collide.
Beautifully shot (in rural Ohio) by cinematographer Brett Jutkiewicz, the film pulls you into a self-contained, almost besieged world. Danger feels bred in the bone and people keep to themselves, worshiping behind closed doors because outsiders don’t understand.
Setting this tone flawlessly is protagonist Mara (feelingly played by Englert), a young woman with an intelligent, questioning look about her. If Mara invariably seems worried, that’s because she has a lot to deal with.
For one thing, her father, Lemuel (a mesmerizing Walton Goggins), is the sect’s fiery preacher, a darkly uncompromising presence always on the lookout for the devil’s handiwork.
Lemuel has, in effect, stage-managed his daughter’s betrothal to Garret (Lewis Pullman, soon to be in “Top Gun: Maverick”), one of his acolytes albeit one who is not crazy about snakes. “We respect the serpent,” Garret is sternly reminded, “we do not cower to it.”
Making things more complicated is the fact that Mara has gotten herself involved with another young man, Augie (Thomas Mann.)
Augie’s mother Hope (Colman), married to Zeke (Gaffigan), is a devout believer who movingly remembers her pre-faith days, saying simply “for years I was lost, wasn’t anybody looking for me.”
Augie himself, however, no longer believes, and that makes any kind of relationship with the preacher’s daughter all but impossible in this close-knit world.
As for Mara, she is torn, still believing more than Augie but worrying about the fissures she feels in her certitude.
“Take away the awful stain of my transgressions,” she pleads with the deity in a wrenching moment. “Don’t take your holy spirit from me.”
All this is simply the setup to a plot that gets increasingly melodramatic, threatening at times to overwhelm everything in its path.
It’s a tribute to how convincingly “Them That Follow” is put together, however, that we go with that plot to the end, twists and all.
“Why don’t you shoot where you’re aiming,” one character says to another, and that is advice this straight-shooting film takes to heart.
Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes
Playing: Landmark, West Los Angeles