The "law of the instrument," sometimes referred to as "Maslow's hammer," is a theory of cognitive bias that's summed up in this useful expression: "If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail."
In Them That Follow, a by-the-numbers indie drama about a community of snake-handlers in Appalachia, the phrase can be revised thusly: "If all you have is a rattlesnake, everything looks like the serpent's task." For Lemuel Childs, the silky-toned pastor who controls this small congregation, snakes are conductors of the holy ghost, symbols of the devil's spirit, tools of ritualistic cleansing and a means to suggest his authority. If one of them happens to bite a parishioner, it's less a mortal crisis than a test of faith, a chance for the victim to prove that he or she can overcome the odds without modern medicine.
There's a good movie to be made about the insularity and patriarchal fervor of the region, but Britt Poulson and Dan Madison Savage's debut feature comes to it from a conspicuous distance. Despite an outstanding performances all the way down the cast list, there's a drive-by quality to the filmmaking, as if this peculiar form of fanaticism was useful mostly for goosing up the dramatic tension. In this scenario, the snake becomes nature's deus ex machina, coiled up and ready to strike when the plot needs thickening.
It's plenty thick from the start, however, when the pastor's daughter, Mara (Alice Englert), convinces her best friend Dilly (Kaitlyn Dever) to hitch a ride to the nearest convenience store and distract the clerk while she shoplifts a pregnancy test. The potential father is a non-believer named Augie (Thomas Mann), who plainly cares for Mara deeply, but doesn't attend church like his parents, Hope (Olivia Colman) and Zeke (Jim Gaffigan), who pressure him to conform.
When it turns out that Mara is, indeed, pregnant as suspected, she can only keep this scandalous news to herself for so long. In the meantime, Lemuel (Walton Goggins) has arranged for Mara to marry Garret (Lewis Pullman), a fervent young convert who believes in the church's traditions but isn't without sinful impulses of his own. Unaware of the Romeo-and-Juliet relationship that's happening right under his nose, Garret tells Mara, "I never laid eyes on anything so pure," and we wait for one heavy shoe to drop. Or the venom to course, more appropriately.
Goggins could not be more ideally cast as a snake-handling pastor — it seems strange, in retrospect, that his villain in Justified never dabbled in it — but his Lemuel isn't the grifter he appears to be. He leads with charisma and occasional intimidation, and he knows that he's skirting around the law, but he's convinced that his traditions are righteous. So, too, does a typically excellent Colman as Hope, who suggests a troubled past and who follows Lemuel's teaching with the rigor of the newly saved. The film pivots around a wrenching decision she has to make between her family and her faith.
But the fine performances can't shake the impression that Poulson and Savage have grafted a run-of-the-mill melodrama onto a thinly realized backdrop. The snake-handling community in Them That Follow is only evoked in fits and starts, but never enough to where its rituals seem explicable or meaningful to the poor, faithless few who latch onto them. It's all familiar indie earnestness, full of plaintive guitar plucks and big emotions, but rarely the sense that we're accessing life "on the mountain" from the inside.
An earlier version of this review mistakenly said Winter's Bone is set in Appalachia. It is actually set in the Ozarks, and references to the film have been deleted from this review.