In February 2014, a pastor named Jamie Coots from Kentucky died from a rattlesnake bite during his sermon. By the time an ambulance arrived, he’d gone home and declined medical treatment. Instead, he believed God would save him if it was his will. It may sound outlandish, but according to ABC News, about 125 churches across the US practice snake handling. West Virginia is the only Appalachian state left not to outlaw the practice.
This is the kind of community we visit in Them That Follow from writer and directors Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage. Pastor Lemuel Childs (Walton Goggins) preaches to a community of Pentecostals who handle snakes in an effort to prove themselves before God. His daughter Mara (Alice Englert) accepts an engagement the devoted Garret (Lewis Pullman), but she hides a secret as she prepares for her wedding day. When the secret comes to life, she’s forced to confront her father’s dangerous religious practices and confront her own beliefs.
Them That Follow is an interesting enough look at a sect of Americans that live such a different way of life than the rest of us. Somewhere in this cast of characters, a great story lives, but Them That Follow isn’t that story. Despite a stellar cast that give their best, the characters aren’t given enough unique personality to make them feel like real people rather than character archetypes. And while there’s certainly stakes at play, the confrontation never reaches enough of a climax to make the set up feel paid off.
What Savage and Poulton do extraordinarily well is recreate the essence and backdrop of the world they’re playing in. They live hidden in the woods from most of society and despise the police, who seem to routinely pay a visit and keep things in check. But in the Appalachians, the police aren’t going to change your way of life. Childs and his congregation believe if you’re bit by a snake, it’s because you have sinned, and if God wants you to survive, he’ll heal you if you’re bit.
They also capture the despair of the community. Everyone seems hopeless and at the will of the charismatic, yet authoritarian Childs. Cinematographer Brett Jutkiewicz captures this well – everything seems dark and desaturated. They live in the shadows and we see that. Hell, even the matriarch of the community, played by Olivia Coleman, is aptly named Hope Slaughter.
Unforuntately, the story doesn’t do the potential of questioning your faith justice. Mara gets trapped in a love triangle, forcing her to choose between Garret (a believer) and Augie (a non-believer). When Augie goes to handle a snake to prove his love for Mara, he gets bit. The film explores Mara (and other characters’) choices as a result of the bite rather than have them truly examine their beliefs. The central conflict feels too removed from the setting and what the directors are trying to get Mara to question about herself and her father.
Part of it is because the characters aren’t fleshed out enough. Goggins is forced to play a stereotypical backwoods villain he always plays, even if he does it really well. Mara feels like a shell of a person with zero agency of her own, even in private, bending to the will of everyone around her. Her passivity makes it hard to really feel for her.
As much as I admire and believe in Kaitlyn Dever, her character feels like an accessory to the story rather than a part of it. We just don’t learn enough about her to care about her. Even the supremely talented Coleman is given almost nothing to do with Hope Slaughter and we don’t really get a definition of her role or her own viewpoints. It’s none of the casts’ fault, there’s just not enough meat on the script for them to make it better.
While Them That Follow captures the essence of snake-handling Pentecostals, it just pack the emotional punch needed make the film what it could have been. What could have been feels lost, with a stacked cast wasted on a dreary mood-piece.