Films about unusual religious sects, and acts of faith that most viewers would find extreme or off-putting, walk a tight line. It’s tough to compassionately portray, for example, a snake-handling church—where preachers and congregants hold live, poisonous rattlers during service to demonstrate their connection to God—without seeming like the camera is staring in horror. At least, that was my takeaway from Them That Follow, the debut feature from Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage, which delves into the serpent-focused doings of a secluded Appalachian religious community. While the film tries to be a shocking window into another world, it plays more like an agog piece of tourism.
The central conceit of the fictional church run by Lemuel Childs (played by Walton Goggins) is loaded with tension. Anyone taking a venomous snake out of a box and dangling it around their person, no matter how calm they are about it, is stressful to watch. But the directors never manage to make the odd behavior in Them That Follow seem like more than a cinematic device. No doubt such churches do exist in pockets of the U.S., yet the residents of this onscreen version don’t remotely feel like real people.
Them That Follow centers on Lemuel’s daughter Mara (the extremely promising young actor Alice Englert), who has been raised in the church and thus lives an isolated existence deep in the woods. Snake handling is, unsurprisingly, quite illegal, so Lemuel and his tiny flock operate in secrecy; among the followers are the recent Oscar winner Olivia Colman as a hard-bitten convenience-store owner, a particularly tufty-bearded Jim Gaffigan, and the outstanding Kaitlyn Dever (a star in Booksmart who’s mostly wasted here as Mara’s mousy friend). The exciting cast is given little to do, since the real stars of the show are the snakes.
As the film begins, Mara has fallen in love with a local congregant named Augie (Thomas Mann) who has begun to distance himself from the church. She’s been betrothed to another, more devout boy named Garret (Lewis Pullman), and this love triangle threatens to throw the whole operation into turmoil. To Lemuel, there’s only one culprit: Satan, who gets blamed for an awful lot of chaos in this surprisingly plotty, soapy story. Someone has asthma? It’s Satan’s fault. Someone’s cheating on their betrothed? Lemuel is quick to point the finger at the supernatural forces of evil, and his big solution to any problem is to pull a snake out of a box and drape it on someone.
The film’s approach is that simplistic. While the practice of snake-handling will be hard for many to wrap their brain around, Poulton and Savage don’t ever dig into what’s driving Lemuel’s radical beliefs. Goggins is a devoted actor who does his best to sell Lemuel’s emotional certainty in what he’s doing, but he doesn’t have the gravitas that Michael Shannon displayed in another portrait of fanaticism, the outstanding and frightening Take Shelter. The zealotry that Mara and Augie find themselves combatting is too one-dimensional for their battle to have proper stakes. So much of Them That Follow’s drama would be easily deflated by someone simply picking up a phone and calling the cops, and every minute that passes without that happening is frustrating. Though Mara’s upbringing taught her that contacting the outside world is forbidden, the situation gets too dire for her passivity to remain plausible.
Given that this is a movie where people pick up snakes and hold them aloft for a while, it’s barely a spoiler to reveal that a character eventually gets bitten. It should be a moment when the film’s themes of unshakable faith collide with harsh reality, but the script (also by Poulton and Savage) doesn’t do enough to justify Lemuel’s horrifying response. The decision to sacrifice a congregant’s safety just to protect the community should come across as the ultimate act of devotion; instead, it feels like a narrative tactic to set up a tragic ending. The subject matter of Them That Follow is undeniably arresting. If only the emotional shading weren’t sorely lacking.