Seen at the Sydney Underground Film Festival
In 2014 a story circulated about a pastor in Kentucky, the leader of a church called the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name and he was giving his sermon when suddenly he died… oh, his sermon would involve carrying a large poisonous snake around and the reason he died was that the poisonous snake bit him on the hand and injected him with a large amount of venom. This is actually a thing that’s more widespread than you might think, one article I found suggested that over 125 churches use poisonous snakes as part of the service. Several pastors and churchgoers have died from snake bites in these services, to the point where local authorities have had to intervene just to try and keep them from harming the community. Basically, this stuff was almost destined to be used as the foundation for a religious thriller and they got a pretty good one.
Them That Follow places the audience in a quiet little religious community that stays separate from mainstream society by living mostly off the grid in Appalachia. This little community just wants to be able to worship as they believe they are meant to, which in this church’s case involves yelling bible passages while large venomous snakes are draped around them by the religious leader Lemuel (Walton Goggins). The community is very happy with how their lives are going, except for Dilly (Kaitlyn Dever) who has a big secret. Even though she is meant to be betrothed to the church golden boy Garret (Lewis Pullman), she’s actually pregnant with the black sheep of the church Augie (Thomas Mann), who has recently been going through a serious crisis of faith that’s probably brought on because Augie understands that messing around with snakes is a dumb thing that dumb people do. Anyway, this secret threatens to tear apart this tiny little community and test their faith… and also, eventually, those snakes are going to get someone killed.
To call this film a slow burn would be overstating it, this film is taking its sweet time moving through the community because it wants you to get to know every character and see every little detail of their religious obsession. What’s fascinating is that the film never actually judges the people involved in the church for what they’re doing. We might find it odd that these characters are willingly wrapping venomous snakes around them (because it is, it’s odd and weird and about 12 kinds of stupid) but the film treats it like the most normal thing on the planet. These are just people, people who we are invited to grow to love before the inevitable hissing time bomb does what it’s here to do. Easily the best of all of the performers is Olivia Colman as the matriarch, Hope, in a more subtle role than her Oscar-winning performance in The Favourite. Most of the heartbreaking emotion comes from witnessing her crisis of faith brought on when the inevitable happens and she’s forced into a position where she has to decide between her faith and modern medicine.
The bulk of the conflict in this film comes from that decision – do we pray for someone to get better or do we take them to a doctor. Now, for most people, this is an easy decision but the film decides to let us witness the pain of deciding to go with faith. You can almost understand why they might think praying would heal a snake bite, they are so deep in their beliefs that it just feels right to them and the tension comes from the slow realization that they are very wrong about this. The entire third act is just a prolonged question of when someone is going to either demand that the victim of the snake bite be taken to hospital or if that victim is just going to die. That slow build I talked about before? Yeah, the second the snake bite happens it’s like the film took a hit of cocaine because it kicks into high gear instantly and seldom stops. It morphs into a disturbing body horror, while secrets get revealed and the community tears itself apart and it’s all so wonderfully performed. Every member of the cast brings everything they have and you’re watching this elaborate game of performance ping-pong where everyone is just keeping up with everyone else… and then the film ends.
Where this film fell flat for me was that ending, which I won’t spoil here but it almost feels like a sharp backtrack after the genuine insanity of the last act. The final act is where everything comes to a head and you see everything tumble and then… yeah, it’s kind of fine. The ending is almost too happy considering what came before it; it just feels softer than it probably should’ve been. Especially when you consider the elaborate care that went into the build-up and the rawness of everything going on, you kind of expect the powder keg to explode again but it just kind of slowly peters out after the loud bang of the third act.
Them That Follow is a fascinating look into a strange form of American religion that most only hear about when the inevitable tragedy strikes. With some great performances and incredible build-up, it’s a great film that’s only slightly hampered by a final few minutes that just didn’t work for me. It’s certainly the kind of film you need to be in the exact right mood to really get into, but it’s a very interesting film that deserves a lot more attention.