Them That Follow (2019) by Britt Poulton and Daniel Savage
A conversation between Andrew Swafford and Reid Ramsey
Andrew: Them That Follow is a film about an Appalachian snake-handling church, which makes it a pretty interesting topic of conversation for us here at Cinematary – our podcast crew is primarily made up of southerners, and we recently completed a months-long podcast series about southern culture on film. Among the films in that series were Marjoe and Wise Blood, which both presented extreme forms of religious performance and asceticism – and we also watched hillbilly, which studies the on-screen representation of Appalachian people specifically. To me, these ideas intersect in the subject of snake-handling churches, which are dangerous and controversial but also loom large in the cultural imagination as a source of extreme southern backwardness.
Before we get into talking about the specifics of the movie, I thought we could just briefly talk about our familiarity with snake-handling. As someone who grew up in a small town just outside of a more mountainous region of Appalachia, I’ve never personally seen it done, nor have I heard any firsthand stories about it. I did, however, spend a pretty substantial amount of my childhood visiting grandparents and great-grandparents who lived up in the mountains where this kind of thing definitely happened. A few years ago, my grandmother gave me a book called Salvation on Sand Mountain, which is by this New York Times author Denis Covington who documented his experience spending time with some of his snake-handling relatives at a church not too far away from where my family is from.
My main takeaway from the book was that snake-handling is a rush – a kind of out-of-body experience where you feel vulnerable and alive before a God powerful enough to take your life in an instant. And like any rush, it can become an addiction – most of the people Covington writes about in his book have had their lives upended several times over by their dedication to snake-handling, whether through physical injury, broken relationships, legal trouble, or having to move with the church when the snake-handlers got chased out of town. But it’s a tricky thing to write about or put on screen from an outsider’s perspective because of how easy it is to sensationalize and paint an fear-mongering portrait of Appalachia more broadly. What do you know about the practice, Reid? I’m especially interested to hear how you feel as someone who identifies with and works within the Christian Church. It is technically Biblical, right?
Reid: To answer your last question: yes, technically. Most scholars tend to agree that the verse in question actually points to hope in the future though. Instead of a command, Mark 16:18 should read as prophecy. The recency of the practice should also throw out some red flags as its founding more than likely points to a thrilling, reactionary antidote to early-20th century culture. The verse in question says, “They will pick up serpents with their hands; and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover” (English Standard Version). The Pentecostal Church, which does make up a large portion of snake-handling churches, also uses this verse to back up their healing practices —although most are not as extreme as the church in Them That Follow.
As far as my relationship to the practice goes, I know people who have attended services where the pastor handles snakes, but they attended more out of curiosity/interest in the study of the subject. I don’t know anyone personally who has handled snakes; I do, however, have experiences that are Pentecostal-adjacent. I’ve attended plenty of church services and prayer meetings that include healing prayer, speaking in tongues, dancing, etc. From my experience — and usually the source of my frustration with media portrayals — these people are some of the most genuine and fun people to be around and the services can be thrilling, even without handling deadly reptiles. They are the types of people who, when they tell you they are giving you their “thoughts and prayers,” you can be assured that (1) they are seriously, deliberately doing so and (2) they’re doing so with the genuine belief that it will actually change things for the better. In my opinion, that conviction is a whole lot better than what we usually see in response from Christians.
The practice of snake-handling is, like you said, an extremist stunt. It truly seems to be only about that addictive feeling. It’s the same fanatical thrill chased by Alex Honnold in last year’s Free Solo, or by parents who enlist their kids in nationwide CrossFit competitions. But snake-handling, and specifically the church in Them That Follow, is chasing that thrill on a communally abusive scale.
Andrew: So let’s talk about Them That Follow itself. Considering how dangerous the subject in question is, it makes sense that this thing is being marketed as a horror movie, but it’s actually more of a melodrama than anything else. There are a couple of anxiety-inducing scenes of people handling snakes in real time, but for the first half of the film, you only ever see church services in montage with twinkly, organ-filled ambient music glossing over the whole thing. In these sections, the movie isn’t particularly interested in giving this community an edge of danger – maybe the intended effect is to give the impression of how the congregants feel rather than how the outsider audience likely does, which is an interesting choice. Still, I imagine that a more authentic way of capturing the vibe of that room would be to make it wired with uncontrollable energy (akin to what we see in the documentary Marjoe) rather than the indie sheen that these montages put over everything.
The melodrama I mentioned earlier is a love triangle of sorts: the protagonist, Mara (played by Alice Englert), is pregnant with the child of the community’s only non-churchgoer (Thomas Mann from Me and Earl and the Dying Girl). She needs to get married quickly, but marrying the child’s father is out of the question – so another marriage is arranged to another man (Lewis Pullman) who is being taught how to handle snakes by Mara’s father, the community preacher (Walton Goggins). There’s not a great amount of plot to speak of – most of the movie’s action orbits the secret of Mara’s pregnancy being kept from various parties before in the weeks following her engagement. Unfortunately, the central relationship isn’t given quite enough time to develop – we only get one scene between the two lovers before they’re separated for most of the film, and it isn’t clear at the outset what the extent of their relationship even is.
One thing to say about the human drama at the center of this story is that it is very interestingly cast: Olivia Colman, fresh off her Oscar win, plays a respected matriarch who oversees Mara’s engagement, and she brings a great amount of emotional range to the role. Her husband is played by Jimm Gaffigan, who does the opposite in an equally compelling way – he’s a man of few words, but his presence brings an exceptional amount of gravitas, especially compared to other stand-up comics we’re used to seeing take on dramatic roles. There’s also Walton Goggins as the snake-handling preacher, appropriately intense and charismatic for the role. Other performances were strange to me: we see Booksmart’s Kaitlyn Devers a lot, but she doesn’t end up serving much of a purpose in the story; Thomas Mann’s character isn’t given any time to develop chemistry with Mara, and I found Alice Englert’s performance as Mara to be a little flat. Coincidentally, the performer she reminds me of most here is Rooney Mara, in that both actors use their blank stares in very pointed ways, but that stare felt a little too blank for me to connect with here.
My mileage varied a bit with these performances, but the cast is fairly stacked for an indie movie like this, and I appreciate the way this movie centers a human drama happening within this community rather than just sensationalizing the snake-handling stuff. How did this play for you as a melodrama, Reid?
Reid: You hit the nail on the head in terms of performances. If melodramatic performances should be bigger than others, then that’s the key of what the movie is missing. Englert and Dever feel like they’re in an understated indie; yet Goggins, Gaffigan, and Colman are truly melodramatic in the best way. I did appreciate that the filmmakers chose this tight focus for the story because more plot would have thinned out some of these characters even more.
One of my issues is that the script tends to make easy observations about this community: the women are oppressed, the men are abusive, and the majority of their lives are spent atoning for what the devil made them do. These observations, while true, didn’t strike me as fresh in an interesting way or encourage me to engage with the circumstances and beliefs that determine this type of communal system. Maybe the strongest throughline is the blame on the devil. Of course in most sects of Christianity, the devil is present, but rarely does he get as many mentions as he does in Them That Follow. The community binds itself around the idea that the devil is the only negative intervention in their lives. When the police show up to take the church’s snakes, it’s not the officers who are at fault, but the devil who makes it so they don’t understand the depths of their faith. When you fall away from God, you’ve been led astray by the devil.
This notion is interesting to me because so often we understand Christianity within a world of crushing self-guilt. The blame on the devil, though, instead of on the individual, affects the mindset of these characters deeply. Even though it does allow the humans to be somewhat free of blame, it also steals their agency in a unique way. Generally in society, if someone is sick and wants to feel better — assuming insurance worked correctly — they could go get the treatment they needed. Here, it is completely up to God (and Satan) who could recover from their illnesses.
Looking at the scenes of snake-handling, then, it felt to me much more as a character coming face-to-face with the devil instead of face-to-face with God. Snakes are not at all new to cinema, and not at all new to horror, but this is the first time I’ve watched a movie and seen a snake essentially be a stand-in for God. Two questions for you this time, Andrew: What did you make of the snakes role in the film? And did you ever see a God at work in this community?
Andrew: I completely agree that the snakes, in their limited role, feel much more satanic than they do divine in the movie, which does make this movie lean into horrific territory here and there throughout its runtime. There’s so much potential for tension-building in the actual snake-handling scenes, but from my perspective it only really lived up to that potential once: as part of the climax, when Mara handles a snake herself, the camera is held very tightly to her shoulders and arms, slinking across her body as if from the snake’s perspective. The film’s other snake-handling scene has much more distance to it (and way too much cutting!), which isn’t nearly as effective – but this scene did a good job formally capturing the horrifying rush of this practice.
As you’ve pointed out, the fact that the film frames the snakes as demonic runs counter to the way the community talks about them, which puts Them That Follow in an interesting place in relation to its subject. On the one hand, it centers their humanity, it doesn’t indulge in any kind of any ugly stereotyping (as Deliverance does), and it gives voice to some of their concerns that you don’t see too often (the distrust of police, for example, is definitely an Appalachian thing that I don’t think many people are aware of in our era of “Blue Lives Matter” Facebook rhetoric); on the other hand, it’s undercutting the core of their belief system by mostly framing the snakes as dangerous and evil. And, to answer your other question, no – I don’t see this film as presenting any sort of divine presence at all. You could argue that those early montages are meant to evoke communion with God, but they’re later undercut by the more horrific snake-handling sequences in the film’s latter half. These people aren’t mocked by the film per se, but their belief system is refuted whole-cloth.
Without giving too much away, I should also mention the ending, in which an escape from the Appalachian community is framed as a triumph. This is a cliche drawn from a common real-world dynamic – most of the progressively minded folks I know who are from Appalachia have left and plan to never return, as if escaping from the communities is much better than working to improve them. It’s a complicated issue, of course, and no one should feel obligated to give their energy to a community that is actively hostile to them, but if you spin out this social dynamic on a large scale, you get increasingly extremist communities that are held less and less accountable by the people they’re hurting because those people don’t have a presence anymore. What are your general thoughts on this movie’s relationship to the Appalachian community more generally, Reid – especially with that ending in mind?
Reid: You’ve done a really good job pointing out what doesn’t sit with me particularly well about Them That Follow. Mara often is the character that could work within this community for the greater good, as she is a firm believer in the religion when the movie opens. She doesn’t even appear to idolize the snakes the way others do. While no one should ever stay in dangerous and abusive situations, the implication that Mara could have no effect on saving this community from their unhealthy views of the world comes across as hopeless.
In the end, these people seem hopelessly backwards, which is the stereotype Appalachian people are constantly pushing against. The stereotype is alienating and also mostly untrue. Obviously it’s hard to put the weight of Appalachian perception onto one movie, but when the film so boldly tackles unseen subject matter like this, it does need to be held responsible. Walking out of the theater, I didn’t come away understanding these people deeper, for better or for worse. I left thinking they were crazy and that deep Appalachia is the last place anyone needed to be.