'Them That Follow' Review: A Slow-Burn Appalachian Gothic Tale That Descends Into Body Horror Territory [Sundance]

"Behold, I give unto you power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy: and nothing shall by any means hurt you." This line from the book of Luke helped give birth to the religious rite of snake handling in Appalachia. As is the case with often questionable religious practices, the worshippers following this tradition have taken things literally, pulling hissing, venomous snakes from crates and practically daring the creatures to bite them. If they are truly one with the Holy Spirit, they will remain unharmed. If they've sinned? Well, that's another matter.

An Appalachian snake handling community is at the center of Them That Follow, an almost unbearably tense drama from directors Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage. In this closed-knit community of worshippers,  there's nothing to fear from serpents...as long as you haven't transgressed.

We enter this strange, hazardous world through the eyes of Mara (Alice Englert), the daughter of the snake handling church's pastor (Walton Goggins). Mara believes fully in her faith, but she also has doubts about the path her father wants her to take. As far as the pastor is concerned, Mara should marry the shy, quiet Garret (Lewis Pullman). But Mara is drawn to Augie (Thomas Mann), the son of two members of the church. Augie's parents – played by Olivia Colman and Jim Gaffigan – are devout, but Augie does not practice. He's an outsider, and wants no part of the church. But he would very much like to be a part of Mara's life, and indeed, before Them That Follow has even started, the star-crossed lovers have already made love – an act that has resulted in Mara becoming pregnant.

This set-up has all the makings of something Shakespearian, or Flannery O'Connor crossed with William Faulkner. As Them That Follow unfolds, its easy to think of it as a great American gothic novel that was never actually written. The narrative feels overtly literary, as do the characters themselves. That's not to say Poulton and Madison haven't conjured up something cinematic. The directorial duo load the film with excruciatingly tense moments highlighted by quick cuts, haunting music courtesy of Garth Stevenson, and atmospheric cinematography from Brett Jutkiewicz. As the movie progresses, it also dips into full-blown body-horror territory, with hideous snake bites, gory self-mutilation, and a last-minute surgical procedure performed by a clearly unsterile tree saw. The filmmakers don't flinch away from any of this, and while Them That Follow can't be considered a horror movie, it's often plenty horrific.

Anchoring all of this unpleasantness is a string of first-rate performances. Englert carries most of the film herself, and proves more than up for the task, bringing a down-to-earth quality to the conflicted Mara. Goggins, who seems like he was born to play a snake-handling preacher, is fiery and stern. And Colman, seen so recently in The Favourite, proves how versatile she is by playing a role unlike anything else she's played before – you'd be ready and willing to accept her as a Appalachia local if you'd never seen her in anything else.

What keeps Them That Follow from greatness is a serious pacing problem. The movie is backloaded, resulting in a languid, far-too-casual first half. Things are so quiet, and so reserved, in this first half that they might test your patience. When the tension and gore begin to mount, its jarring, and creates a kind of cognitive dissonance.

But the atmosphere here is too intoxicating to resist. The filmmakers bring us fully into this world, and while the customs on display seem strange, and dangerous, and even backwards, you never get the sense that they're judging any of these characters, or their beliefs. They're simply presenting them as-is, and creating a believable world in the process.

Too nightmarish to classify as a standard drama, and too grounded to be a full-blown horror movie, Them That Follow is a curiosity that might fall through the cracks if you're not looking for it. This is the type of movie worth discovering, and talking about it. Even if everything here doesn't work for you, the palpable dread and the fully-formed characters will work their way into your blood, like venom you can't spit out.

/Film Rating: 7.5 out of 10