“Them That Follow”–Faith, Interrupted

Them That Follow  (2019) is an odd  American indie thriller about an Appalachian, Pentecostal, Charismatic snake-handling Christian cult.  A close-knit community with extremely strong beliefs, it exists on the far-fringe of mainstream society. This is the backdrop for a love story between the Pentecostal pastor’s daughter and a boy in the community who no longer is fervent in his faith.

Mara Childs (newcomer Alice Englert) is a dutiful  daughter, raised to believe that her faith unites the community in a holy bond protecting them from others outside their religion.  Her father, the pastor Lemuel (Walter Goggins of “Justified”) is relieved  that his daughter, in her late teens, has agreed–albeit reluctantly– to marry Garrett, one of the parishioners he’s most fond of.  However, Mara really loves  Augie Slaughter (newcomer Thomas Mann) who has distanced himself from the church, much to his mother’s dismay  (Olivia Colman as Hope Slaughter).

By handling poisonous snakes,  worshippers demonstrate their faith in putting their lives in God’s hands.  If you avoid being bitten or survive the venom  all of your sins may be forgiven.. After a minor dies during a snake- handling church meeting, police warn Lemuel he is under investigation for reckless endangerment of a minor, and perhaps for murder. 

For the first half of the film, Mara does not question her father or her own faith, until she becomes engaged to Garrett, who doesn’t understand her disinterest in him. By the second half  Mara finds herself in an existential crisis, in which she must choose between her faith  and her love for Augie.  

Them That Follow  moves slowly with some irrelevant scenes during the first half of the drama,  but once the story moves to family dynamics and the sacrifices individuals have to make in order to save their souls, it becomes dramatic and tense.   A faith that had once been human and natural, now morphs into something twisted and grotesque like the snakes in the church’s vestibule.  We see the conflict between the security offered by the religious community and the courage needed to move beyond that community. 

The ending is unexpected.  While flawed, Them That Follow held this viewer’s attention until the end.  Any opportunity to watch Olivia Colman is worth taking and the other members of the cast provide nuanced performances.  This is not for everyone.  But it is  a glimpse into a controversial, quirky slice of Americana which is disturbing.

Available on Netflix DVD.

Note:  Them That Follow  was filmed in Youngstown and Salem, Ohio as a substitute for the more southern Appalachia region. In 2013 there were roughly 125 snake-handling churches in central Florida to West Virginia and as far west as Columbus, Ohio, as well in Edmonton and British Columbia.  Pentecostal Holiness churches base their  snake handling services  on a very literal interpretation of a biblical passage from the gospel of Mark 16:17-18:  “In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.”

“The Hater”–Social Media Run Amok

The Hater, a Polish thriller, captivates with its young nerd culture gone awry on social media. The movie is intelligent,  never simplifying the internecine competition between the elite college professional and those who yearn for that life.  The Hater reveals a  cold, ruthless world of postmodern haves and have-nots.  The online emotional vengeance and despair are palpable as the young computer hacker,Tomasz, wreaks havoc on those he most wants to replace.  Channeling his sociopathic, obsessive behavior into a place designed to enhance it: Facebook. 

Tomasz’s zeal stems partly from humiliation at being found to be plagiarizing in law school and also partly from his benefactor’s family’s condescension towards him. Tomasz masterminds a smear campaign against those who have considered him socially inferior, using racism, xenophobia, and homophobia as not just tools of division but ways to get ahead at the expense of others. 

Weaponizing social media as a troll farm to recruit others with a similar sense of grievance against the world, Tomasz takes on institutional complacency and smugness.  He wonders if  their situation will always remain the same. In a disturbing but  original way,  The Hater pounds at the technological anxiety that increasingly seems to infuse societies worldwide.  A very nihilistic perspective on the internet’s tentacles into our lives.  Well done!

Note:  The Tribeca Film Festival winner for Best International Narrative Feature Award 2020. Now available on Netflix streaming.

“The Goldfinch”–Art and Loss

Goldfinch (2020), based upon Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer-Prize winning novel, tells the story of  a young boy, Theo ( the astonishing Oakes Fegley), who is walking through galleries with his beloved mother at the  Metropolitan Museum of Art.  They gaze at a Dutch Master painting of a chained bird, the Goldfinch,  when a terrorist bomb goes off. Theo’s mother dies and he escapes the rubble, clutching the 17th-century masterpiece and a dying man’s insistence that he take his ring.  The little boy’s life will change dramatically over the course of the film.

With his mother dead and his father a deadbeat, Theo is thrown into two worlds: The first in an  Upper East Side Barbour family led by a matriarch (Nicole Kidman), followed by the Las Vegas gambling underworld of his dad and Theo’s teenage friend Boris.  Both worlds have an irrevocable impact on Theo’s life. Random and unforeseen events, even tragedies, shape Theo into someone he  wouldn’t otherwise be.  

As one would expect from a novel with several plots to propel the characters’ arcs into surprising dramatic turning points,   Goldfinch, for the most part,  manages to hold the viewer’s interest.   Some scenes in the first half are a bit slow, but the second half of the film turns into a crime thriller.

The adult Theo (Ansel Elgort from “Baby Driver”), who is the narrator, does not rise to the heartbreaking performance of the young Oakes Fegley.   And Nicole Kidman and Jeffrey Wright as Hobie, –Theo’s refuge and loving father figure– are as good as they always are, subtle and understated.   

This is a movie with deeply flawed characters.  Viewers who can appreciate the destructive elements  of lies, secrets, and betrayal will understand that this is a story about the loss and grief of a young child, and the young adult’s journey towards healing, with the promise of love and forgiveness.  This film kept me watching until the end.

Note: I believe the  critics judged this movie a little too harshly.  I did not read the book so I was not influenced by a comparison with Tartt’s novel.  However, the two media are radically different and I have never felt that the psychological interior lives portrayed in a novel can be presented visually on the screen in the same way that the abstraction of the narrative is created in the mind of the reader. 

“Belgravia”– Downton Abbey REDUX

Belgravia,  based on “Downton Abbey” creator Julian Fellowes’ 2016 novel of the same name,  opens two days before the Battle of Waterloo at an aristocratic ball.  Two London families—the Earl (Tom Wilkinson) and Countess of Brockenhurst (Harriet Walter) and the up-and-coming merchants, Anne (Tamsin Greig) and Philip Trenchard (Philip Glenister), are uncomfortable in their brief interactions.  There are insurmountable  class differences and  if that were not enough, the romance between the Brockenhursts’ son and the Trenchards’ daughter fuels the discomfort.  Over the course of twenty-five years, a long-buried secret unravels and threatens to ruin both families.  The shadows of that ball  demand a reckoning. 

 Belgravia soon becomes a suburban residence for the affluent, developed by the Trenchards’ company, as one of the first housing developments of its kind.   Betrayal, class warfare, subterfuge between family members, and secret love affairs proceed at a rapid pace as underhanded tactics and greed dominate the plot. 

Laced with intrigue, Belgravia is darker and meaner than “Downton Abbey”.  Characters have darker places in their souls, if they have one at all.  Some family members surprise with their character development and shift in moral compass.

Tamsin Greig and Harriet Walter as the two mothers are at turns, haunting and devious . The veneer of gentility radiates in public places, disguising cozy manners wrapped around a hard core.  Both actresses have a remarkable ability to make the viewer share their innermost private feelings.

A thoroughly engaging soap opera/melodrama, Belgravia is certain to be a crowd-pleaser for fans of historical drama and is an engaging follow-up to “Downton Abbey”.

Note: Available on Amazon Prime (Epix) and on Netflix as a DVD.