Orthodox family melodrama ‘Them That Follow’ tackles snake-handling

BY NEIL MORRIS, CN+R Film Critic
Posted 8/16/19

It wasn’t necessary for “Them That Follow” to sensationalize or serve as a quasi-documentary about the fringe religious practice of snake handling. But, the discredited, perhaps misunderstood milieu merited more in-depth examination than this earnest, yet languid character study that immerses itself in its sylvan, suffocating setting without dissecting the cultural makeup of its inhabitants.

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Orthodox family melodrama ‘Them That Follow’ tackles snake-handling

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Alice Englert, Kaitlyn Dever and Ramona Schwalbach in 'Them That Follow.'
Alice Englert, Kaitlyn Dever and Ramona Schwalbach in 'Them That Follow.'
Photo courtesy of 1091 Media
Posted

It wasn’t necessary for “Them That Follow” to sensationalize or serve as a quasi-documentary about the fringe religious practice of snake handling. But, the discredited, perhaps misunderstood milieu merited more in-depth examination than this earnest, yet languid character study that immerses itself in its sylvan, suffocating setting without dissecting the cultural makeup of its inhabitants.

Mara (Alice Englert) lives in the isolated highlands of Appalachia, the dowdy and devoted daughter to Lemuel Childs (Walton Goggins), pastor to a Pentacostal community church that practices snake handling. It’s an illegal ritual, so services are held at night inside a rustic chapel deep in the woods. Its followers are puritan in their lives, with women expected to dress conservatively and wash the feet of their husbands. Marriages aren’t exactly arranged, but they’re strongly suggested, meaning Mara is betrothed to another true believer, Garrett (Lewis Pullman).

However, Mara not only harbors romantic feelings for Augie (Thomas Mann), another young man brought up in the church who isn’t as devoted to the sect as his parents, but Mara also learns that she’s pregnant with Augie’s child. The bulk of “Them That Follow” revolves around the gradual discovery of Mara’s scandalous secret and the consequences that follow.

Snake bites are carefully edited to be heard but not seen, an obvious nod to the film’s modest production budget. So, too, with a scene in which the arm of a bitten parishioner is amputated with an electric saw. The local police raid the church and confiscate their serpents at one point, but the episode takes place off-camera and we’re only privy to an impassioned rejoinder that Lemuel proclaims after the fact. These and other occasional overnights combine to skirt any specifics and faith practices and keep the audience at arm’s length from a religious sect already shrouded in mystery. The focus on Mara and her rebellious impulses frames a narrative around a provocative premise. But additional insight into the spiritual and psychological origins of snake handling is not only expected, but they would have further fleshed out the film’s characters.

To their credit, directors Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage seek to avoid summarily castigating its characters and their sincere religious practices. And the cast, which includes Kaitlyn Dever as Mara’s gal pal and Oscar nominee Olivia Colman as Augie’s mom, are game — Goggins in particular was born for this sort of role. But Mara, like her belief system, remains a flat backdrop southern gothic atmospherics and an otherwise orthodox family melodrama. “Them That Follow” needed more bite, but instead its screenplay feels defanged.

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