The Bible verse Mark 16:18 reads, “They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them.” It’s scripture some isolated Pentecostal churches understand as literal directives for worship services designed to show their true conviction for Christ. In Them That Follow, screenwriters and first-time directors Britt Poulton and Daniel Savage explore the religious practice of snake handling, but they do so via a less-than-intriguing narrative featuring a backwoods love triangle.
Set deep in Appalachia, the story centers on the life of Mara Childs (Alice Englert), the daughter of a local pastor (Walton Goggins) who ministers to his devout followers with the gospel in one hand and a writhing rattlesnake in the other. Conflict doesn’t come in the form of Mara pushing back on her father’s serpentine sermons, however. She is a believer, which creates an interesting composition for the film’s lead character. While she is unconcerned with the venomous snakes, she does find herself at an impasse with two young men — Augie (Thomas Mann), her secret lover and spiritual dissenter, and Garret (Lewis Pullman), one of her father’s disciples the church has coerced her to marry.
With a cult leader and reptile enthusiast for a father, viewers might wonder why the sense of danger that should be pulsating through Them That Follow feels more like a stumbling block than it does a catastrophic event that could seal Mara’s fate. She’s a formidable female character, which is notable on its own, but when matched against weaker men, there is never really a moment in the film where she doesn’t appear in control — even when she’s following orders or simply sulking. Only in the final act are her stakes raised, but by then, Poulton and Savage don’t seem confident where to take the picture.
Academy Award winner Olivia Colman (The Favourite) portrays Mara’s only real adversary, the unfortunately named Hope Slaughter, a loyal member of the church and Augie’s no-nonsense mother. She exudes authority throughout the film. Them That Follow also stars Kaitlyn Dever (Booksmart) as Dilly, a friend of Mara’s who comes to live with her after she is abandoned by her mother — and, ultimately, by Poulton and Savage’s script, which treats her character like an afterthought.
It’s evident Poulton and Savage wanted to delve into the concept of blind faith and how that affects someone like Mara who — like many people worldwide — has adopted the religious beliefs of her parents. The filmmakers are unable to find the emotional hook needed to express the extremely personal issues Mara is forced to confront. Poulton and Savage do a fine job setting the somber tone, but the melodrama lacks significant bite.