Them That Follow (2019) is an odd American indie thriller about an Appalachian, Pentecostal, Charismatic snake-handling Christian cult. A close-knit community with extremely strong beliefs, it exists on the far-fringe of mainstream society. This is the backdrop for a love story between the Pentecostal pastor’s daughter and a boy in the community who no longer is fervent in his faith.
Mara Childs (newcomer Alice Englert) is a dutiful daughter, raised to believe that her faith unites the community in a holy bond protecting them from others outside their religion. Her father, the pastor Lemuel (Walter Goggins of “Justified”) is relieved that his daughter, in her late teens, has agreed–albeit reluctantly– to marry Garrett, one of the parishioners he’s most fond of. However, Mara really loves Augie Slaughter (newcomer Thomas Mann) who has distanced himself from the church, much to his mother’s dismay (Olivia Colman as Hope Slaughter).
By handling poisonous snakes, worshippers demonstrate their faith in putting their lives in God’s hands. If you avoid being bitten or survive the venom all of your sins may be forgiven.. After a minor dies during a snake- handling church meeting, police warn Lemuel he is under investigation for reckless endangerment of a minor, and perhaps for murder.
For the first half of the film, Mara does not question her father or her own faith, until she becomes engaged to Garrett, who doesn’t understand her disinterest in him. By the second half Mara finds herself in an existential crisis, in which she must choose between her faith and her love for Augie.
Them That Follow moves slowly with some irrelevant scenes during the first half of the drama, but once the story moves to family dynamics and the sacrifices individuals have to make in order to save their souls, it becomes dramatic and tense. A faith that had once been human and natural, now morphs into something twisted and grotesque like the snakes in the church’s vestibule. We see the conflict between the security offered by the religious community and the courage needed to move beyond that community.
The ending is unexpected. While flawed, Them That Follow held this viewer’s attention until the end. Any opportunity to watch Olivia Colman is worth taking and the other members of the cast provide nuanced performances. This is not for everyone. But it is a glimpse into a controversial, quirky slice of Americana which is disturbing.
Available on Netflix DVD.
Note: Them That Follow was filmed in Youngstown and Salem, Ohio as a substitute for the more southern Appalachia region. In 2013 there were roughly 125 snake-handling churches in central Florida to West Virginia and as far west as Columbus, Ohio, as well in Edmonton and British Columbia. Pentecostal Holiness churches base their snake handling services on a very literal interpretation of a biblical passage from the gospel of Mark 16:17-18: “In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.”