Synopsis: Set deep in the wilds of Appalachia, where believers handle death-dealing snakes to prove themselves before God, a pastor’s daughter holds a secret that threatens to tear her community apart.
Stars: Alice Englert, Walton Goggins, Olivia Colman, Kaitlyn Dever, Thomas Mann, Lewis Pullman, Jim Gaffigan
Director: Britt Poulton & Dan Madison Savage
Running Length: 98 minutes
TMMM Score: (4/10)
Review: I admit it, at my age I’ve become one of those fair weather church-goers who only venture into a pew for the holidays or for special events. Even then, I often find myself contemplating thoughts of the coffee hour after rather than what hymn in next in my book. I’m not going to get into a religious discussion here but I have my own communion with a higher power and don’t necessarily need the building to have that bond. I do respect how helpful the act of “going to church” is for people, though, and have seen first-hand how it’s a lifeline for those in need of support or comfort.
I speak on religion first in this review of Them That Follow because I want to be clear that I’m no expert on the practices displayed within or pass no judgement on the churchgoing folk the film centers on. Lately I’ve been stepping back from my Midwestern safety bubble and taking into consideration the cultures of other walks of life and using the films I see as a way to open up new doors for me to explore. I tell you, it’s helped greatly in finding a take-away in even the most middle of the road movies I’ve seen. Such is the case with Them That Follow, a short wanting to be a full-length movie that only simmers when it should be boiling over.
A congregation of Pentecostals in rural Appalachia are presided over by Pastor Lemuel Childs (Walton Goggins, The Hateful Eight) who preaches of the devil’s trickery and the need to cleanse oneself from wicked sin. To rid oneself of sin, his congregants show their devotion to God in the handling of venomous snakes. If the snake strikes, the parishioners are left to fend off the venom on their own. If they survive, it is Gods will and they are forgiven. As the film opens, the church is under the watch of the local authorities investigating the death of a person that perished under these extreme circumstances.
Unbeknownst to the Pastor, his daughter Mara (Alice Englert, Beautiful Creatures) has gotten pregnant by Augie (Thomas Mann, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl), a local boy that has been exiled from the church for rejecting their teachings. While Mara contemplates her future within the community and what this baby means in the wake of her recent betrothal to Garret, a handsome new arrival (Lewis Pullman, Bad Times at the El Royale), her faith is tested at every turn. How long can she keep the secret from her father, the man she’s been promised to, and the man she has feelings for but can’t be with? It all comes to a head when Augie comes to visit the church and makes an unexpected request.
The poster for Them That Follow and the trailer hint of a movie with a more sinister edge but writer/directors Britt Poulton & Dan Madison Savage don’t have enough plot to get around any twists and turns. What we have is a movie I think would have worked quite nicely as a short film but, at feature-length, strains to make a case for the extra running time. I was actually surprised to find this didn’t originate as a smaller project first because the final act especially has a few taut moments that would have worked better if the first 2/3rds were trimmed down. Another distraction adding to the feeling is a slow pace that keeps the movie from finding a rhythm within this community. You can’t have a slow-burn if you aren’t willing to light a fire in the first place.
Those skeeved out by snakes are advised to steer clear of this one. There are ample shots of the large reptiles slinking around the forest as well as over the bodies of the church-goers throughout the film. Despite the threat of danger, there’s little tension to be had because the filmmakers haven’t raised the stakes high enough for audiences to be holding their breath. While Goggins relays his usual dialed up, toothy, performance it surprisingly doesn’t reach the fever pitch of fire and brimstone that would have goosed the film in positive ways. While Englert’s quiet moments are keenly felt, she’s a bit of a non-entity when sharing the screen with more formidable co-stars. Strangely enough, I’ve sometimes gotten Mann and Pullman confused so it was nice to see them in the same frame to clarify once and for all they are different actors.
There are a few upsides to the film. The location filming is quite lovely. Kaitlyn Dever (Booksmart) is a nice presence as Mara’s timid friend abandoned by her mother that comes to live with the Childs family. Harboring her own feelings for Garret, she has to watch her best friend agree to a marriage she clearly doesn’t want while the man she likes has no idea she’s interested. Dever handles this balance nicely, never playing her role too addled or selfish in the face of her love going unrequited. Then there’s Olivia Colman, following up her Best Actress Oscar win for The Favourite playing a character named Sister Slaughter who finds herself divided between her loyalty to her community and her son, Augie. Colman’s choices are unexpected, small, and intense…all the makings of a well-thought out performance.
In many ways, I’m glad Them That Follow didn’t devolve into some gory horror film with religious undertones. It could easily have pivoted to something completely different but not wholly unexpected but it resisted and stayed in a safe lane. True, there is one squirmy scene near the end but it’s largely an off-screen event so there’s little horror to be found aside from the isolation Mara feels. While it does provide some additional interest for me to learn about these snake handling communities, there’s not much about the film as a whole that’s worth circling back on with much consideration.