Fresh from her Oscar win for The Favourite, the indisputably great Olivia Colman shows up in Them That Follow as a snake-handling Pentecostal congregationalist in the Appalachian mountains who finds her faith sorely tested. You might want to read that sentence twice since this movie does not follow any traditional paths. But the faith it examines, in practice for more than 100 years, is considered a religious freedom by those even in areas that seek to outlaw it. Writer-directors Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage do not come from a Pentecostal church background, so in making their feature debut, they were determined to show respect to what exists off-the-grid and outside conventional morality. A wise choice, especially when you’re entering a world that could easily be misunderstood.
Them That Follow takes its good, sweet time getting to the point, which may try the patience of viewers. It’s the actors who put flesh on the bare bones of the story. Colman plays Hope — Sister Slaughter to the community — who claims she has only one vice: smoking. Having experienced the big, bad world outside before settling down with her husband, Zeke (comedian Jim Gaffigan, scoring solid dramatic points), Hope is ready to show Zeke the required slavish devotion. It’s their son, Augie (Thomas Mann), who questions the precepts of their faith. Their pastor, Lemuel (Walton Goggins, doing that popping thing he does with his eyes), preaches the gospel according to Mark 16:18 that requires each parishioner at service to test God’s love with a venomous viper. If the rattlesnake bites and kills you (it can take up to 48 tortuous hours for the venom to finish the job), it is God’s will. If you survive the ordeal, the Lord has shown mercy.
Augie resists this dogma and risks expulsion from the community by carrying on secretly with Mara (a heartfelt and touching Alice Englert), the pastor’s daughter. Mara has already been promised in marriage by her father to local boy Garret (Lewis Pullman), who seems more attracted to her virgin purity than anything else about her. If Mara veers from the sect’s strict patriarchal rules, she will have to show her submission through such tasks as washing Garret’s feet.
Credit Poulton and Savage for detailing life in this Pentecostal hamlet without condescension or ridicule. Nonetheless, it’s hard to watch Mara and her friend, Dilly (Booksmart‘s stellar Kaitlyn Dever), being forced to detour from a path that would allow them to think for themselves. The need for each individual to carve out a space for independent contemplation is the story’s core dynamic. And when the script gives the actors a chance to play these home truths, the film comes meaningfully — if fitfully — to life. Sadly, Poulton and Savage have a tendency to dawdle without using the time to build meaningful characterization. And the swerve into bizarre melodrama in the final third knocks the film permanently off course, reducing a potentially rich examination of religious extremism into a missed opportunity.