Dilly is a young woman struggling with an unplanned pregnancy in a small rural mountain community which is bound together in their faith, a rare Christian sect that handles poisonous snakes to prove their faith.
“Them That Follow” is a film I was really looking forward to. I have always been a Walton Goggins fan, though he has been type cast, and, as one who grew up in a church that most would consider extremely strict, I have always been interested in films about faith, faith communities, and cults. I have also done quite a bit of my own personal research into religion but mostly the Christian faith so I even already knew about the sects of Christianity that believe in snake handling and have met people personally who grew up in communities that practice it.
As I heard about this film on various podcasts and reddit threads as well as my own conversation with Eric Kuiper on our Podcast (Ep 68 - Movies In Michigan), I was pretty primed for a movie that was going to knock my socks off with its portrayal of cult life, power struggles, and personal faith issues. Instead, I’m sad to say, I got an OK but familiar story of a girl being sheltered, emotionally abused, and physically intimidated into submission before she realizes her inner strength, inspired of course by a boy.
This movie trades on its exploration of these snake charming backwoods recluses yet never really grapples with the issues one might think would be present in such a film. Remove the snake handling from this film and it’s about as standard a story as you can find with familiar beats of action along the way.
Even this wouldn’t bother me if there was character movement but there isn’t much to speak of. Our protagonist Dilly (Kaitlyn Dever, “Booksmart”) seems to feel the same way at the start of the film as she does until the last 5 minutes or so. Her father, (Walton Goggins, “The Hateful Eight”) is extremely one note: domineering. What a waste of an actor. As a cult leader we get none of the likability that should go with his character. He is a monolithic controlling man and nothing else.
We see Dilly struggle because she wants to be with her beau but never do we see what it is that draws her to want to stay in her community except fear. Where is the trust, love, and friendship that she should be so fond of as to not want to leave? Only the sense that she knows nothing else but this and can’t even think about leaving for the disruption it would cause.
As a person who has struggled with my faith at various times and has had many conversations with those that have as well and come to very different conclusions than me, I can tell you that leaving a tight knit community like that is rife with fear, certainly, but that fear is mixed up in a myriad of other emotions as well which paralyze you into innaction.
We never see this complicated view. Instead this film opts for simple, cut and dry answers which anyone can get behind. Of course we want her to leave. She’s being abused. How much more interesting if her situation was more convoluted, full of love for some people, fear of others, and a fear to leave her own faith behind.
What about the side characters? Why do they stay? They are all under the same oppression as Dilly. They just don’t have a boy from the outside who thinks they are cute, I guess?
These ideas and questions all seem to fall by the wayside in service to the almighty point of the film which must be made in the most obvious ways possible lest anyone, least of all Dilly, come away with any other thought than, ‘That church was bad. That boyfriend was good.”
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