In 2014, Kentucky pastor Jamie Coots died after being bit by a rattlesnake during a service at his tiny Middlesboro, KY church. It was the tenth time the Pentecostal leader had been bitten during his tenure as a snake handler, and the last time he refused medical attention for a poisonous bite. At the time, his son Cody told the local CBS affiliate, “When it’s your time to go, it’s just your time to go.” Such is the faith that guides the kind of Pentecostal snake handlers who populate Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage’s “Them That Follow,” devotees of Christ who interpret the King James Bible to literally encourage them to “take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them.”
Deep in Appalachia, the decades-old practice continues in a handful of churches, places just like the one where Coots received his final bite. Despite a premise seemingly made for secular mocking, Poulton and Savage treat their setting and characters with care and attention. These are people molded and shaped by their faith, a place that is sustained by the small band of followers who gather to worship and, occasionally, try their luck with a box of wild reptiles. If there’s someone to fear, it’s the Devil himself, not the godly people next door.
At the heart of “Them That Follow” is Mara (Alice Englert), a pastor’s daughter plagued by a transgression that threatens both her faith and her relationship with her father Lemuel (Walton Goggins). A key flashback hints at what will soon be revealed as Mara’s secret — a big one, a typical one — but Poulton and Savage otherwise avoid played-out tropes when it comes to building Mara’s story.
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Mara is a true believer, and “Them That Follow” isn’t a film about a cloistered young person attempting to break free of the seemingly cultish trappings of their faith. As she fervently prays for God to remedy her situation and gift her with a new and “clean heart,” Englert’s striking performance pushes a seemingly cliche character into fresh spaces. It’s not that she wants out, but she can’t help wanting more, a pickle no amount of praying can help (much as she fervently believes otherwise).
She’s surrounded by folks just as dedicated to their faith, with Poulton and Savage assembling a righteously talented cast that includes Kaitlyn Dever as her heartbreaking best friend Dilly and Oscar-winner Olivia Colman as a converted devotee also adept at avoiding character expectations. Lewis Pullman, who possesses his actor father Bill’s same everyman charm, is the faithful congregant who hopes to marry Mara, while Thomas Mann is the church dropout she really loves.
Despite the abiding nature of their faith, there’s little joy in the community. Cinematographer Brett Jutkiewicz washes out their world in dark shadows, cloudy grays, and a flat palette that telegraphs desperation without being heavy-handed. Houses are dim, damp, and crowded. Even outdoor scenes are claustrophobic, with the trees pushing in a little too close. Something else is closing in, too: the cops, who have been through Lemuel’s church before, and have never taken kindly to the dangerous way he goes about expressing his faith.
Snake handlers believe a bite will result in one of two things: death (obviously, but that is never a black mark against the victim; at one point, a dead parishioner is referenced merely as someone who “couldn’t fight off the venom”) or recovery. And if you live through a snake bite, it’s a sign that your faith is so powerful that God is compelled to heal you; your dedication is both the reward and the reason for coming out the other side.
After a slow-burn first hour, Poulton and Savage unfurl a climax that unexpectedly brings together all of the pieces fighting for Mara. It’s nerve-jangling and raw, and the filmmakers earn their tension and the gruesome harm that comes with it. (There are plenty of snakes.) All that goodwill comes close to collapse, however, as Poulton and Savage charge toward the finale.
The final 10 minutes of “Them That Follow” twists some of the film’s most compelling and well-drawn characters into the worst versions of themselves — Pullman, in particular, is saddled with a whiplash-inducing change of heart and behavior — with the film suffering a similar fate. Instead of sticking to incisive subversion, it opts for expected resolutions that make for a tidy end, but do little to answer lingering questions. In the end, it’s a matter of faith, and one that doesn’t always answer back.
1091 releases “Them That Follow” in theaters on Friday, August 2.