The pastor’s daughter is pregnant.
What you imagine when you read that sentence probably depends on your biases surrounding evangelical Christianity — if you pictured the pastor’s daughter happily married to a God-fearing spouse, that premise might read like a cheerful one. In “Them That Follow,” writer-directors Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage take the story down the opposite route.
The parish is a Pentecostal mountain community where believers demonstrate their faith by draping venomous snakes over their bodies. The pastor is Lemuel Childs (Walton Goggins), a fanatic with wild eyes and TV-anchor teeth, and his daughter Mara (Alice Englert) gets engaged to a zealous parishioner named Garret (Lewis Pullman) while secretly carrying another man’s child.
Since nearly everyone in town seems to be one of Lemuel’s acolytes, Mara can’t trust anyone with the secret. And here’s the twist: Even though Mara is endangered by the church’s arcane traditions, she remains a believer.
The worship scenes are memorable: Lemuel’s church, a barn-like structure marked by a neon cross, seems like a rare gathering place in the isolated, overcast Appalachian setting. With his eyeballs bulging, Goggins practically yells Lemuel’s fire-and-brimstone sermons. The parishioners shut their eyes, jump around, and reach toward heaven. Every call-and-response “amen” feels like it could be an incitement to violence.
Which brings us to the snakes — the creatures that purportedly act as conduits for God’s judgment. They hiss and slither and bite arbitrarily, but for this isolated society, the snake trials function as a makeshift system of justice. (A note for those who are squeamish around blood: The movie features a fair amount of it.) The snake stuff is riveting — how could it not be? But Poulton and Madison Savage’s treatment of the rural community tilts toward the anthropological: A few corny bits of dialogue can make the parishioners feel like types instead of characters.
The movie makes predictable arguments about religious fanaticism and nuanced observations about the gender politics that exist therein. Goggins makes for a hypnotic, sinister patriarch: “Take that off,” Lemuel says with cool fury when his adult daughter comes downstairs in a dress that displeases him. Garret, Lemuel’s mouth-breathing protege who asks for Mara’s hand in marriage, obsesses over how “pure” his fiancee is.
It’s even more interesting to watch the women navigate these power structures. Playing Mara’s best friend, Dilly, Kaitlyn Dever of “Booksmart” gives an earnest performance as a young woman who craves the approval of violent, fanatical men. Olivia Colman, of “The Favourite,” convincingly plays Sister Slaughter, the most influential woman in the church, who discovers Mara’s pregnancy through a ritual virginity examination. It’s unclear if the community is animated by the presence of God or the urges of men, and the characters struggle with that confusion.
“Them That Follow” pushes us to contemplate gender, power, and faith, but the script does a real disservice to the woman at the center of the plot. Englert’s performance is nuanced and impressive, given that she’s been asked to spend much of her screen time washing things and looking melancholy. With lots of wistful sighing and looking off into the distance, she scrubs dishes and the car and her face. (If it’s a purity metaphor, it’s an unexciting one.) The problem isn’t that Mara behaves passively — it’s that the character is too flat to gain our sympathies.
Mara’s agonized devotion to the church pushes the story along, but we never learn what anchors her faith. This could be shoddy character development, or purposeful ambiguity, or both: We’re left to wonder if she really believes in the church’s practices, or if she’s simply been too fearful to consider the world beyond the mountain. Maybe that’s the whole point.
THEM THAT FOLLOW
Written and directed by Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage. Starring Alice Englert, Walton Goggins, Olivia Colman, Kaitlyn Dever. At Coolidge Corner. 98 minutes. R (domestic violence, gore).