Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage's harrowing thriller "Them That Follow" probably borrows its title from a verse in the Gospel of Mark: "And these signs shall follow them that believe ... They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them." As the biblical reference suggests, the film explores the treacherous dimensions of a worship community bound by a deadly covenant.
The film is set in an evangelical community, tucked away in the Appalachian Mountains, whose leader takes those words quite literally: Pastor Lemuel Childs (Walton Goggins) is a snake handler, believing that God will protect his followers – who demonstrate their faith by picking up deadly serpents – from injury or death. Alice Englert stars as his daughter Mara, who is set to wed Garret (Lewis Pullman), a devout member of the community, although she secretly maintains a forbidden relationship with her friend Augie (Thomas Mann). After learning that she is pregnant with Augie's child, the film's inevitable creep toward conflict – both with her betrothed and with her fanatical father – dials up the dread.
Except for a few scenes, most of the movie takes place in the forest, feeding a subconscious sense of claustrophobia. The natural splendor also functions as a labyrinthine barrier that insulates the community from outsiders – particularly law enforcement. Often lingering on faces, the camera invites the viewer to dwell on whatever malaise afflicts the characters. Whenever the snakes show up, the tempo of the music grows frenetic. In several ritualistic scenes, they're shown to slither and wind around limbs and necks, spelling probable death if they choose to strike. As symbols, they represent both divine judgment and the constrictive – even, potentially, toxic – nature of familial and communal obligation.
Olivia Colman, Kaitlyn Dever and Jim Gaffigan round out a talented yet crowded ensemble cast, which has so many principal characters – all flawed in a different way – that the filmmakers are unable at times to devote the attention that each one deserves. Colman, in particular, is stellar as Augie's mother, which makes her secondary role all the more maddening. Dever's character, despite getting a lot of screen time as a friend of Mara, feels superfluous.
As the film opens, it's clear that there is a deep backstory that is only hinted at, and which we are left to figure out as the movie progresses, leading to a game of catch-up: How did Garret – or, for that matter, Augie – come into Mara's life? And how exactly has the death of her mother contributed to Mara's desire to please her father (not to mention to subscribe to his unorthodox teachings)? Coupled with a slow-burning first act, this feeling of disorientation limits our investment in Mara's plight. But the generally engaging performances and stylish directorial flourishes elevate what are otherwise flatly written characters.
This flaw may, paradoxically, work to the film's advantage.
In a sense, the characters in "Them That Follow" are subordinate to the overarching narrative in the same way that the members of the congregation are subservient to what they believe to be the strict mandates of a harsh God. Seen through that lens, the scenes of ritualistic frenzy and, in one brief instance, domestic abuse land with added weight. If characters are cruel to each other, it's because of their twisted interpretation of religious fidelity.
"Them That Follow" includes a few nuggets that lend it subversive texture. The congregation's strictly gendered division of labor, for instance, suggests a critique of sexism, but ultimately, it amounts to little more than window dressing.
In a summer featuring Ari Aster's "Midsommar" – another film arguably about a young, guilt-plagued woman discovering herself amid a radical sect – "Them That Follow" is a much less violent but still unsettling journey.