“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 Favourite–A Compelling Menage à Trois

 

 

The Favourite

Nominated for ten Academy Awards including best picture, The Favourite is perhaps one of the best revenge thrillers of 2018. Reminiscent of Downton Abbey with its opulent settings and costumes, The Favourite is also an historical drama.

In the early 18th century court of Queen Anne, we see a mentally fragile and damaged queen (the sublime Olivia Colman), facing the usual suspects vying to seize the growing power of an emerging empire. The queen’s closest advisor and friend, Lady Sarah Marlborough (Rachel Weisz), governs the country behind the scenes through manipulating Anne’s vulnerabilities, infantilizing her, and enabling the Queen’s weakened health to worsen.

When Sarah’s cousin Abigail (Emma Stone) arrives, desolate and no longer considered aristocratic, Lady Sarah becomes indebted to her for assuaging the Queen’s episode of gout. Abigail sees a chance at a return to her aristocratic roots if she can become a trusted confidante of the queen. The plot thickens, as we see the two ladies-in-waiting wrestle for the queen’s attention and affection. Queen Anne seems to slip deeper into madness, while delighting in being fought over by Lady Sarah and Lady Abigail.

 

The Favourite movie

The Favourite is not only a thriller but a love triangle. Are Lady Sarah and Lady Abigail really in love with the Queen or simply ingratiating themselves in order to manipulate her for their own self interests? We’re never quite sure.

Colman, Weisz and Stone are fully in control in every scene, giving powerhouse performances. Their virtuoso acting is the engine that drives the subplots and unexpected twists and turns at Kensington Palace. (With subchapter titles like “I Dreamt I Stabbed You in the Eye”, the viewer is still left unprepared.) In the end, however, it is Colman who is unforgettable, whose eyes subtly water at hurtful comments, the gaze of one who hopes that no one notices the injury. Those eyes and the subtly of her acting, repeatedly holding this viewer’s undivided attention, are exceptional.

Through her mesmerizing performance as Queen Anne– broken, impulsive, lustful, needy and angry all at once, –Olivia Colman owns almost every iconic moment. All is communicated through her eyes. Few can rival that.

Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone give the performances of their lives too, with tantrums, furious raging, and sexual excesses. Uncomfortably intimate close-ups, with a wide range of emotions richly displayed, reveal their desperate loneliness and despair.

While the wicked schemes and betrayals make The Favourite a very strong contender for an Academy Award for best picture, the historical setting was puzzling at times. It is the early 18th century and England is at war with the French, but The Favourite does little to inform the audience that the war is known as Queen Anne’s War and foreshadows the Napoleonic  Wars so this is a critical time for building an empire. The addition of a little historical context would have put the crowning touch on The Favourite.