by Joshua Ray on Aug 8, 2019

Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage’s debut feature, Them That Follow, suffers greatly from its lack of an interesting point-of-view. Set in secluded foothills of the Appalachian mountains in which a community of evangelical Pentecostal devotees deploy venomous snakes as a ritual test of faith, this hyper-indie-movie vision of a toxic community gone awry makes an early promise to which it just can’t commit. It may be cut from the same quasi-thriller cloth as Sean Durkin’s 2011 debut, Martha Marcy May Marlene, but Poulton and Madison only retain that slow-burn identity-mystery's sensationalism and almost none of its acute exploration of the allure of cults and the trauma they inflict on their members.

Casting Walton Goggins as Lemuel, the rattlesnake-catching and blustery preacher of this church, should be a major coup for these new filmmakers and screenwriters, but even the performer’s seething insidiousness for which he’s best known (as in television’s Justified [2010-15]) coupled with his innate charm (see his scene-stealing turn in Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight [2015]) can’t truly elucidate the pull such an obviously dangerous dogma has on its believers. Poulton and Savage’s script is simply too basic and too rote in its mechanics to elevate the material beyond its mix of soap opera and suspense trappings – and there are enough of these to propel a viewer through it – burdening the resulting film’s incredible cast with all the heavy lifting.

Shouldered with most of that weight is Alice Englert as Lemuel’s daughter, Mara, and she carries the young and troubled woman with great dignity and doubt, making her a credible center for both the narrative and the community that surrounds the character. Arranged marriages and the protection of one’s virginity are the norm here, and Mara has broken the latter vow with her secret boyfriend, Augie (Thomas Mann), who’s already distanced himself from the church to which his mother, Hope (Olivia Colman), and father, Zeke (a straight-faced Jim Gaffigan), are so devoted. Mara’s lustful “sin” sends her into a downward spiral.  She steals a pregnancy test from the convenience store Hope runs and (of course) it reads positive, forcing her to conceal – even to her best friend and surrogate sister, Dilly (Kaitlyn Dever of Booksmart [2019]) – not only her relationship and condition but also the increasing schism between her upbringing and her diverging beliefs.

Complicating matters is a newcomer to the community, Garret (Lewis Pullman), and his romantic interest in Mara – interest Lemuel so wholeheartedly endorses, he convinces them that a nuptial union is in order. As per tradition, Mara is given the opportunity to decline, but the timing is all too convenient for her to pass up. Her intended ruse doesn’t last long after Hope performs an invasive “rite of passage” on the bride-to-be and discovers her secret. What follows gives Them That Follow its thriller components as community members are pitted against each other in a test of faith vs. logic: Two instances of reptile-as-absolution end with wildly different results as the film pivots from hillbilly soap opera into a gory race against the clock.

Throughout, surface-level assessments and depictions of the religion don’t allow for an audience to identify with the given theology or its members’ unmoved devotion. Accordingly, there’s condescension towards the lifestyle and characters presented here, although to convince any viewer differently may be an absurd task, given the particulars of it. Poulton and Savage are likely too green to imbue their film with the same sort of subversive attraction Paul Thomas Anderson lent to the faux-Scientology of The Master (2013). Their script mostly just lifts aspects of snake-worshipping for the purpose of by-the-numbers filmic conflict, resolution, and exploitation, as opposed to the more multifaceted exploration of influence and identity seen in Anderson’s superb work.

That said, Colman, fresh off a Best Actress Oscar win for The Favourite (2018), sells this sort of depth through her performance. Her Hope is a solemn worshiper who bears the heavy cross of her past – the character alludes to the rough road of sins that led her to the church – until the weight of it virtually crushes her when she’s forced to choose between the source of her supposed salvation and a life-or-death matter. Once the pressure ruptures her already unstable constitution, the actor pushes the film into its most humane moment. In a production filled with dressed-down Hollywood-types acting as the new silent majority (director Debra Granik navigates similar territory with both Winter’s Bone [2010] and Leave No Trace [2018] to better results), Colman is the best embodiment of what could simply be an unconvincing stock-type in a film unfortunately filled with them.

Rating: C