SXSW Review: ‘Them That Follow’ is a snake-handling snooze-fest

Even when a rattler bites, it’s just more fodder for navel-gazing about the difficulty of doing the right thing

Courtesy of SXSW

Editor’s Note: Vanyaland’s Nick Johnston is down in Texas all week long covering the South-By-Southwest’s 2019 Film Festival; click here for our continued coverage from SXSW and also check out our official preview.

Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage’s first feature, the religious drama Them That Follow, boasts a premise well-worthy of a chop-house rednecksploitation double feature: Mara (Alice Engert), a snake-handling preacher’s daughter who discovers that she’s pregnant after a fling with a local non-believer (Thomas Mann) and must figure out what her options are, given that the community at large, and especially her stiff father (Walton Goggins) won’t stand for an unplanned pregnancy out-of-wedlock. For those not familiar with the practice of snake-handling in churches, it’s a religious test — if you’re pure or whatever, the snake won’t bite, if you’re not, well, enjoy your last 36 hours of pain on this Earth, bud — so it’s essentially “Chekov’s rattlesnake” here at play.

Sadly, it’s stuck in the miserabilist Appalachia of a director like Scott Cooper, which ultimately knee-caps the picture before it even is able to get started. The film is quite literally set in one of the most beautiful and unique places in this country, but, had the film’s synopsis not mentioned the location, one wouldn’t be able to tell it from the foggy forests of the Pacific Northwest. I don’t know if I totally agree with the criticism that this is poverty porn, as the characters seem to have relatively comfortable little lives, outside of one abandoned teenager (Kaitlyn Dever) whom Goggins’ preacher later invites into his home, but I definitely understand that the aesthetic, with all of its ponderous joylessness, would lead people to see it as such. This will undoubtedly inspire thinkpieces about how this accurately describes Trump’s America or whatever, and I already feel exhausted at such a prospect.

The majority of the cast isn’t able to lift the material beyond its boring style, with Poulton and Savage even squandering the work of recent Best Actress winner Olivia Colman as Mann’s disapproving mother; a nearly-impossible feat, to be sure. One small exception to that is Goggins himself, as the man could make classified ads sound like poetry, and he’s captivating when he’s behind the pulpit, handling rattlers with grace and shouting about the redeeming power of Christ’s love. And, thanks to his talents, the scenes within the church are nearly reminiscent of Jesus Camp, that 2006 documentary that terrified so many about arch-conservative religious Christian sects in the US, but they lack that film’s urgency and immediacy.

Never once do the directors let us sink into the performance or the world in which these characters inhabit, because we’re held at such a far remove from the community, as if the film is exclusively asking for our judgment rather than our understanding. Even worse, it feels as if this part of the world is completely disconnected from the things that might drive people to such extremes in order to feel like they belong or to feel like they’re atoning for their sins: The closest we get is a brief monologue about Colman’s retreat from the outside world, a vague stab at something deeper that only grazes the skin. Even when a rattler bites, it’s just more fodder for navel-gazing about the difficulty of doing the right thing even when everybody tells you not to do so, leading to an ending so empty and open-ended that it’s almost like they forgot to film the last quarter of the script.

Them That Follow is a fitting title in perhaps more ways that one: It perfectly describes the film’s ethos, content to trail behind its more successful predecessors until it lulls audiences to sleep with familiarity.