Appalachia has a timeless appeal. As remarked by some, including the directors of Them That Follow, it is easy to displace a story set today with one in the same location occurring a hundred years ago. And it’s a fair assessment since in proportion to those Smoky Mountains, a century is the blink of an eye. Such is the rationale for the new indie darling’s rather old-fashioned, if more astutely sophisticated, melodrama involving fathers, daughters, sermons, and serpents.
The hook of Them That Follow, which previously played at Sundance and now premieres at the SXSW Film Festival, is that of an elemental love triangle taking on a modern menace when it occurs in a mountain community that is so beholden to the old ways that the lines blur between family and cult, devotion and delusion. From the outside in, it is hard to rationalize any other way to explain snake-handling as a form of worship. Yet the success of Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage’s film, beyond a sterling cast led by Walton Goggins and Olivia Colman, is it manages to invite moviegoers into the fold, all while drawing you toward sights lacking in piety. When an avatar for Lucifer is wrapped around your ears and line of vision, it’s easy to forget you’ve heard this old song all before.
The “them” we follow in the picture is primarily Mara (Alice Englert), the daughter of a fire and brimstone pastor named Lemuel (Goggins). Sheltered by a lifetime in a rural paradise, there’s a primal touch of the romantic to her childhood, hence why she is hinted to have so many unchaste rendezvouses in the woods with Augie (Thomas Mann). The irony is of course there is no sense of romance in this deeply religious community. Lemuel has very specific ideas about how his flock should live, including with snake-handling in their prayers and a lack of law, government, or even modern medicine in their practices.
He also has singular designs for his daughter. She has been arranged to marry a boy of Lemuel’s choosing, the strapping Garrett (Lewis Pullman) who makes a solid marksman on hunts with her father, be it for game or rattlesnakes destined for Sunday service. Mara is meanwhile left at home to quilt with Augie’s mother, Hope (a ferocious Colman), who sees more than she lets on. Colman is the first to realize that Mara loves Garrett not; rather the preacher’s daughter has eyes for her son. So when Hope becomes the only person to know Mara is pregnant, things go from bad to worse as her disbelieving son volunteers to wrap his arms around a serpent.
Them That Follow is an elemental story that gains as much traction out of the spirit channeled by its cast as it does the gently revealed coils of its narrative. Englert makes a strong center in her best performance to date, bringing a sturdy defiance to a protagonist who remains passive for most of the film’s running time. And while the other two edges of her triangle are serviceable, the real strength of the film comes from the older generation of Goggins and Colman, as well as other reliable character actors like Jim Gaffigan in the margins.
Goggins makes an excellent manifestation of the patriarchy in a performance that straddles the line between wide-eyed lunacy and humane fallibility. He’s aware that there is a growing chasm between himself and his daughter, and this dawning self-awareness of insecurity prevents the central conflict from falling into cliché. Colman, meanwhile, gives another quietly captivating performance in a supporting turn that suggests she’s a woman capable of being a reckoning all her own, if not for a crippling fear of the Holy Ghost constricting around her throat.
A sample of how an entire community’s inability to open its mouth can lead to disaster, it is this collective failure that should be able to elevate Them That Follow off just the festival circuit and into a popular art house attraction. A love triangle between teenagers torn apart by their elders is something that could’ve been situated just as easily in a 1940s Hollywood programmer as it is in this more measured, naturalistic telling. However, it is the juxtaposition of faith over fact to the point of self-destruction—and the knowing contrast of how faith in lieu of true hope can become its own slow-acting poison numbing people to progress—that allows the picture to get away with indulging a pointed taste for body horror. Indeed, Poulton and Savage relish in the consequences of the worst-laid plans, with fleeting yet gripping imagery that wouldn’t be out of place in a Giallo splatter flick. Savoring each slither of tongue and squirm of scales across young flesh, the third act’s apocalyptic iconography will leave some moviegoers as shaken as those clicking tails, which is more or less the point.
It is the tension of a finale that’s intentionally skin-crawling that lifts Them That Follow above the overly familiar plotting and melodramatic handwringing of romantic ideals torn asunder. Young loves were lost a hundred years ago and will be lost in a hundred more, but Them That Follow’s visceral encapsulation of a distinctly modern strand of anti-modernity causes the film to have venomous bite.