Them That Follow


(2019) Documentary (1091) Alice Englert, Walton Goggins, Olivia Colman, Thomas Mann, Lewis Pullman, Jim Gaffigan, Kaitlyn Dever, Dominic Cancelliere, Annie Tedesco, Bradley Gallo, Katherine DeBoer, Brooks Roseberry, Erik Andrews, Connor Daniel Lysholm, Catherine L. Albers, Kami Amore, Chris Breen, Logan Fry, Christine M. Pratt, Ramona Schwalbach. Directed by Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage

It is said that faith can move mountains, but in the mountains of Appalachia faith is much more than that. Faith is everything; one’s devotion to God must be absolute. There are no other alternatives. In some rural churches, faith is a life or death equation.

Mara (Englert) is the pretty young daughter of Pentecostal preacher Lemuel Childs (Goggins). Lemuel is part of the snake handler sect which requires his flock to prove their devotion to God by allowing a venomous rattlesnake to be draped around their neck. If the snake leaves them alone, fine; that’s God telling you that your faith is sufficient. However, if the snake elects to sink its fangs into you, you’ll undergo an agonizing slow death unless you can fight off the venom. With the help of friends or family praying away, anyone who succumbs to the snake bite does so due to a lack of faith, not to a lack of medical care which the congregation eschews.

It’s a highly patriarchal society in which women are made to wear ankle length skirts, perform roles of cooking, cleaning and child-rearing and to be absolutely submissive to their husbands. They are not even supposed to drive, making this a kind of Saudi America. If the Muslims hadn’t claimed the burkas first, I wouldn’t be surprised if the women of the congregation were made to wear them.

Mara is at an age where she is ready to be married. Daddy has picked out intense Garret (Pullman), a member of the parish and a true believer. However, Mara is kind of sweet on Augie (Mann), the son of local gas station/market owner Hope (Colman) who is known more commonly as Sister Slaughter. She was a bit of a hellraiser in her youth but her husband Zeke (Gaffigan) has essentially calmed her down. As for Augie, he is anything but a true believer; in fact he’s an atheist. His mother tolerates it pretty much as you tolerate the drunk uncle in the family.

Mara and her good friend Dilly (Devers) are inseparable, especially since Dilly’s mom abandoned her in fleeing the church and community which isn’t especially tolerant of free thinkers, particularly among the women. However, Mara is carrying a secret of her own and when it gets out it could rock the entire community to its core.

The feel here is authentic Appalachia; although the movie was filmed in Ohio it feels more like West Virginia. The gorgeous cinematography from Brett Jurkiewicz helps set that particular mood, as does the set design – Lemuel’s church is in a converted barn with only a neon cross to differentiate it from other barns. The life of the mountain folk here are pretty simple and uncomplicated; there are no television sets and things move at a fairly slow place, like the land the Internet forgot.

In fact, one of the drawbacks to the film is that the pacing is maddeningly slow particularly through the first two thirds of the movie. It does pick up speed towards the end, though so if you can sit through the first hour, you should be golden the rest of the way.

However, there’s still the performances of Goggins and Englert to enjoy; the two of them have a real chemistry and they both embrace their roles with gusto. Colman, who is a recent Oscar-winner, sounds a bit uncomfortable with the Southern accent, but she is solid as well as are Pullman and Mann as Maras two suitors. Gaffigan, a gifted comedy actor, shows off his dramatic chops nicely here.

The movie is largely about how far you are willing to take your faith before it becomes unhealthy. It’s hard not to see comparisons between these cultish Pentecostals and modern Evangelicals who seem to be grabbing the headlines lately. The directors respect the faith of the characters here which is nice to see; too often Hollywood tends to be either dismissive of characters with faith, or in the case of Christian cinema, too proselytizing. Some of the snake scenes are pretty horrible to watch and the sensitive sorts might want to take a pass on it, or at least watch it those scenes with eyes tightly shut and a trusted friend to tell you when to open them up again.

I’m not sure why anyone would think that God requires you to prove your faith by taking a rattlesnake to your breast, but some believe that it is so. The movie isn’t going to give you any answers in that direction but it is going to show you characters with strong faith and strong convictions – not to make them look evil, or backward but if anything to remind us that some good people sometimes believe in things that the rest of us might not understand – or accept.

REASONS TO SEE: The cinematography is gorgeous. Englert and Goggins deliver incendiary performances.
REASONS TO AVOID: Moves at a fairly slow and languid pace.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity, an attempted rape and some disturbing violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Lewis Pullman is the son of actor Bill Pullman who memorably played the President in Independence Day and its sequel.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/12/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews: Metacritic: 56/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Apostle
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
ZZ Top: That Lil’ Ole Band from Texas

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Islam and the Future of Tolerance


Sam Harris is looking for peace.

(2018) Documentary (The Orchard) Maajd Nawaz, Sam Harris, Douglas Murray, Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Directed by Desh Amila and Jay Shapiro

 

It is a given that it is a bad idea to discuss politics and religion if you want things to be sociable. Harris, a neuroscientist, is an atheist who has become symbolic of the New Atheist movement. Nawaz is a former radical Islamist who after being rescued from an Egyptian jail by Amnesty International has become an outspoken advocate for religious reform within Islam. Initially when they met, a discussion over the possibility of reform within Islam led to a rift between the two men.

Eventually, they decided to talk things out and discovered that they were more like than unalike. While they both have fundamental differences in philosophy, both agree that Islam needs reform, and that the way to do it properly is not through violence but through conversation. The two men had just such a conversation (which fortunately was recorded with excerpts from it played here) which led to them co-authoring a book whose name this documentary has taken as a title and whose subject matter has inspired this film.

Both men are articulate and intelligent; listening to them talk is absolutely fascinating. They are also passionate believers in their ideas, with Harris in particular suggesting a willingness to have his mind changed. Watching this movie is like being privy to a conversation between two intellectual equals who not only have differing points of view, they are both willing to admit the points of view that they share as well. At times the movie gets a little bit talky which might scare some people off (if the subject matter doesn’t to begin with) but I found the movie never got dull. Your opinion may differ on that score.

While the directors use some interesting visual metaphors to what’s happening (like using tightrope walkers to illustrate the difficulty both men faced when they re-convened in 2014) they mostly stick to interview-style tactics to discuss the backgrounds of the two main subjects, particularly when it comes to Nawaz whose background in England going from a fairly happy high school student to a radical Muslim is compelling. He would join the radical Hizb Ut-Tahir group and become an important recruiter to their cause. After 9-11 (he was in Cairo recruiting at the time) he was arrested by the Egyptian police and tortured. It was only through the intervention of Amnesty International that he was released; the fact that it was Westerners who saw to his rescue led to his transformation from radical Islamist to advocate for reform.

The questions raised by the movie are worthy ones and to be honest these are questions we are all going to need to grapple with. The last third of the film both men take aim at liberals who have a tendency to overreact to criticism of Islam by immediately playing the bigotry card. The infamous Real Time With Bill Maher show on which actor Ben Affleck blew a gasket when host Maher and guest Harris referred to Islam as “the mother lode of bad ideas.” He said that the sentiment was “gross and racist,” and at the time I agreed with him.

Watching this though I see what Harris and Maher were trying to get across a little bit more clearly. They are absolutely correct that liberals are becoming more and more entrenched and intolerant in their beliefs that true liberals march in lockstep when it comes to issues of cultural appropriation, sexual politics and other liberal sacred cows. Criticism of bad ideas is at the heart of liberalism and if we can’t do that without someone yelling “cultural insensitivity,” then we have failed. However, words do matter and I can understand why Affleck blew a fuse – going back and watching the clip over again (it’s on HBO Go) the language both Harris and Maher used was inflammatory. That becomes more of an issue when Nawaz argues that strict interpretation of what the Quran says may not necessarily reflect what the intent was of the writer to get across; the language has changed considerably in the interim, as well as the context.

This is fascinating stuff although some may find it dull and overly intellectual. For my part, I think that film should occasionally give our brains an opportunity to be exercised and tackling controversial but relevant questions about explosive subjects is in general a good thing. This is a dynamic if occasionally dry movie that is unafraid to tackle a subject most of us don’t care to think about – but we really should.

REASONS TO GO: The viewer is forced to reexamine their beliefs. This is more of an intellectual film than an emotional one. There are some interesting visual metaphors.
REASONS TO STAY: The film may be a bit too talky for some.
FAMILY VALUES: The thematic content is not suitable for children. There is also some profanity including racial epithets.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Harris and Nawaz met at a dinner following a debate in which Nawaz felt he had his rear handed to him; Harris, admittedly tipsy, asked questions of the obviously hurt Nawaz that led to a non-violent standoff. Four years later, Harris reached out to Nawaz and had a lengthy phone conversation; both men found to their surprise that they had more common ground than they thought.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, iTunes, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/19/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Thinking Atheist
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Ben is Back