If you follow the arthouse/independent scene, you may have noticed a minor trend of films set in nearly uninhabited rural locations, where urban life is barely a rumor and there's not a cell tower, Starbucks or Landmark Theatre in sight. What's behind this fascination for this world of wilderness and trailer parks? Is it anthropological, an exploration of cultures that have resisted the pull of modern life? Or is it just a sophisticated form of class baiting, a cleaned-up version of the old Ma and Pa Kettle/hillbilly stereotypes for the reassurance and amusement of the "indie" crowd?
Them That Follow, the latest exercise in cinematic ruralphilia, centers on Mara (Alice Englert), a young girl living in an unnamed but extremely isolated mountain town in Appalachia (the film was shot in Ohio). We don't learn many details about her life (is she in school?), but that's because there aren't many to learn. She's engaged to marry an earnest, God-fearing young man, but she's in love with — and pregnant by — Augie, who is as close to a bad boy as the area can offer (he's stopped going to church). This in itself would be a problem for most young women, but Mara's got it worse: Her father Lemuel (Walton Goggins) is the pastor at the local Pentecostal church, one which specializes in the understandably limited practice of snake handling.
If you're interested in the finer theological points of reptile-based worship (it's based on an over-literal interpretation of a few lines in the New Testament), you'll be disappointed. Lemuel and his followers reach for their crates of serpents as freely as if they were spreading holy water, but they — and the filmmakers — don't spend time trying to explain it. The film suggests that it's threatening and more than a little ominous, but for Lemuel it seems almost coolly routine. They talk about damnation or spiritual cleansing, but it's more out of habit, an automatic response to any behavior that threatens to shake the dull atmosphere.
Making their directorial debut, Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage take it for granted that there's an inherent shock value in the snakes, the oppressive setting and the heavy cloud of moral condemnation hovering over Mara, but they don't provide a dramatic structure to hold it together. There's not much conflict here, no real small-minded misanthropy or fearmongering. There's just a lingering sense of resentment, aimless and unspoken.
Mara is uncomfortable not because she's living in a cesspool of ignorance and oppression but simply because it's kind of a bummer being a teenager in a town where the only social activity consists of going to church. There's no indication that anyone watches television or listens to the radio or even subscribes to Reader's Digest.
Poulton and Savage have assembled a strong cast, but rather than cover the script's flaws, they only underscore them. The performers (many of whom are British or Australian, as is so often the case with the new cinematic rusticity) try hard to find substance here, aware that they're just a step above stereotypes, but it's an uphill battle. Englert is admirably self-confident, Goggins manages to avoid falling into mustache-twirling villainy, and comedian Jim Gaffigan, as one of the church members, seems to be confused, as if he's not quite sure how he wandered into the film. As a local storeowner (and Augie's mother) who offers Mara a matronly ear, Olivia Colman tries to bring depth to a largely thankless role (who am I kidding? — they're all thankless roles), but then, she's Olivia Colman, which is more than the film deserves.