Them That Follow
2019, R, 98 min. Directed by Britt Poulton, Dan Madison Savage. Starring Alice Englert, Kaitlyn Dever, Walton Goggins, Olivia Colman, Thomas Mann, Lewis Pullman, Jim Gaffigan.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Aug. 9, 2019
The constant conundrum of religion is how people end up believing in superstitious nonsense. Most of the time, the process is buried in antiquity, but not so in Appalachia's snake-handling Holiness movement. Their belief that clutching poisonous serpents while the Holy Spirit shakes you and protects you is younger than motion pictures, cornflakes, and windscreen wipers, but it's no less pervasive or concrete in the minds of its followers.
The fangs of this belief have sunk deep into this small West Virginia community, where Mara (Englert, Ginger & Rosa) serves her loyal role as the daughter to local charismatic preacher Lemuel (Goggins) and fiancée to Garret (Pullman), a former lost sheep who has come back to the fold. Yet it seems she been sharing more than sideways glances with the apostate Augie (Mann), the son of her father's right-hand woman, Hope (Colman).
Them That Follow is a small, intimate depiction of a community held together by faith, and the conviction that they can use the ire of rattlesnakes and cottonmouths to gauge God's love. The moments of snake handling are few and tense, but the languors between those crawling chills become lulls, especially as the film so clearly soars when Goggins is onscreen. Colman and Gaffigan (as her faith-conflicted husband Zeke) provide a bedrock, while it's Dever (Booksmart) as Dilly, Mara's closest friend, who pushes the moments of drama, quietly blundering through relationships.
The story is not really about the snakes, but about how faith shapes behavior, and shapes power structures. When push comes to shove, the bullying, domineering nature of these Pentecostal patriarchs comes all too clear, without ever falling into cartoonish villainish behavior. Them That Follow is never directly critical of the insanity at play, instead letting the story reveal the crimes committed in their own light. Indeed, the moment of human cruelty actually plays too broad, especially since Goggins – the master of backwoods complexities – brings both menace and compassion with just a glance, or the way he leans on a counter.
We've undoubtedly come a long way in depictions of semi-separated communities since the toothless rapists of Deliverance, but Them That Follow instead finds its critical power in pointing out the peril of good intentions – thoughts and prayers, indeed. While never screaming its message, the script by first-time feature directors Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage still finds a way to damn the sin more than the sinner.