‘Them That Follow’ Review: An Overwrought Appalachian Soap Opera | Sundance 2019

     January 30, 2019

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If you are reading this movie review, you are in all likelihood not a member of a Pentecostal snake handling church. I am certainly not a member of a Pentecostal snake handling church. Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage’s Them That Follow centers on the members of a Pentecostal snake handling church in Appalachia, but after the film is over, you won’t feel like you have a better understanding of these people or their beliefs. Them That Follow offers a unique setting and the kind of characters we don’t normally see in movies, and yet Poulton and Savage never dig deep enough into their characters’ psyches for us to empathize with them. Despite having an outstanding cast, Them That Follow always keeps its audience at a distance, which makes the movie feel exploitative rather than insightful.

Set in the wilderness of Appalachia, the story follows Mara (Alice Englert), the daughter of Pastor Lemuel (Walton Goggins), who runs a snake-handling church. In the church, the poisonous serpent is a way to judge who is ready to repent. If the serpent strikes, it’s up to the Holy Spirit to save those with “the devil” flowing through their veins. Against this backdrop, Mara is hiding a secret from their small community while trying to appease her father by marrying his preferred congregant Garret (Lewis Pullman). However, her secret could end up losing her everything, including the man she truly loves, Augie (Thomas Mann).

Because Them That Follow aims to be an ensemble picture, it lacks a strong point of view on the community. Mara is ostensibly the protagonist, but because the story never examines any character too closely, we’re at a loss on their thoughts and emotions. For Poulton and Savage, they seem to think that if they just let the camera linger and pace their movie at half-speed that tone will suffice for insight, but it doesn’t. For example, Mara’s only friend is Dilly (Kaitlyn Dever), whose mother has abandoned her. But how has that abandonment affected Dilly? How has it affected her faith? How has it affected her interactions with others? I have no clue and I never really get to know Dilly as a result even though Dever is a good actress. She has nothing to work with and neither does the rest of the cast.

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Image via Sundance

It’s not a great sign when the people at the center of your movie are Pentecostal snake handlers and you leave the film wondering if the directors did any research. There’s no specificity to their actions, so I could just as easily believe that Poulton and Savage watched a documentary or two at best and then set to work writing a script. Everything with the church is purely surface level, which is disappointing because the faith here is fascinating. These are people whose faith is so intense that they’re willing to employ poisonous snakes, so what creates that kind of following? What’s the reward from that? In the hands of Poulton and Savage, the characters are just religious fanatics and nothing more.

Instead, Them That Follow is more like a soap opera with dramatic secrets and love triangles, but without any of the glamour. The storytelling is melodramatic, which the directors try to balance out with muted cinematography and languid pacing, but it can’t cover up that the plotting is ridiculous and leaves the characters as stock figures rather than real people struggling with real conflict. The specificity of the setting is undermined by the broadness of the storytelling, and Them That Follow never captures our interest as a result.

I’d love to see a good movie set in this world, but Them That Follow just seems like it’s exploiting it for dramatic effect. If you’re not going to dig into the spirituality of these people, then they’re just strange “others” who we can’t hope to understand. Instead of being the stars of their own story, Them That Follow always feels like it’s watching the characters instead of living alongside them, which gives the movie an icky voyeuristic quality. You don’t have to agree with Pentecostal snake handlers or subscribe to their views to at least view them as people who have a story worth telling.

Rating: C-

Them That Follow does not currently have a release date.

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