To most, a slithering snake might inspire fear. But to Mara (Alice Englert), in the new film Them That Follow, these creatures are beautiful, strong, and hold deep ties to her faith. Mara is a snake handler, part of a Pentecostal sect rooted deep in the woods of Appalachia. Like the snakes they use in their worship, these people are fiercely loyal, keeping to their own on a remote mountain. Martial engagements are made within their church community, involving all in a proposal process that includes quilting, snake-hunting, and a public acceptance. They avoid outsiders, like the police who will snatch their snakes, as well as their members, whenever possible. And if one of their members should be bit, they reject modern medicine, seeing the bite not as a health concern but a God-ordained test of faith. This life is all Mara has ever known. But as she grows into womanhood, her faith is rattled.
As the pastor’s daughter, hers is a life of strict regulations. The women of this sect are submissive to their men, be it their fathers or their husbands. They dress modestly, wearing no make-up, long skirts, and long-sleeve shirts with no cleavage on display. They braid their hair, care for the home, and even wash the feet of their men if requested. When a respected young man in her community asks her father for her hand, Mara understands what is expected of her. She knows the life that is in store for her. She will not usher a word of complaint or protest. But from behind burning brown eyes, we know her soul yearns for more. For Mara carries a secret, one that could not only derail her path to her upcoming marriage but also destabilize her community as a whole.
The snake handlers’ service could easily be played as garish, exploitative spectacle. While most religions carry some form of showmanship, there’s something especially exciting about the handling of deadly snakes, the raucous testifying, the speaking in tongues. But co-writers/co-directors Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage refuse to gawk at these rituals, instead capturing them with a grave solemnity that reflects Mara’s own. It’s a noteworthy choice, because with much of the cast, the tone could have gone either way. The ensemble includes stand-up comedian Jim Gaffigan, American character actor Walton Goggins, acclaimed for his villainous turns both comical (The Hateful Eight) and spine-chilling (Justified), and newly minted Academy Award-winner, Olivia Colman, who has built an astonishing career leaping from the outlandish comedy of Fleabag and The Lobster to the soul-scorching drama of Broadchurch and Tyrannosaur. (Or The Favourite, where she does both!) But here, they — along with earnest leading men, Lewis Pullman and Thomas Mann — deliver performances that are grounded in stern passion, aching love, and miserable fear.
While the specifics might seem strange, the core of the story is universal. Mara is reaching a point in her maturity where she must call into question the wisdom of her parents to discover who she will become. Her friends, Augie (Mann) and Dilly (Kaitlyn Dever), face similar precipices, choosing between faith and family. Yet Them That Follow displays a deep empathy for both sides, presenting the parents not only as dogged disciplinarians, but also as devout believers who are certain to their bones that they know best. Such blind faith is far more unnerving that the snakes that curl around their vulnerable flesh. Poulton and Savage make this point subtly by embedding us in the rustic lives of these hardscrabble people. We follow them as they walk for miles to the nearest store to worship service. We sit in their cramped homes, where guests cram shoulder-to-shoulder around a battered table. We stomp through the woods in search of snakes and perhaps a bit of privacy in this world so small. Through it all, we see the community as Mara does the snakes, a thing of a certain beauty and power, but also with the potential for danger.
By rejecting exploitative spectacle or a histrionic tone, Poulter and Savage invite audiences to reconsider an oft-maligned group, adding a complexity to the conversation. But more than that, Them That Follow is a mindful exploration of growing up that might feel familiar whatever your faith or lack thereof. It creates not only a thorough portrait of Mara’s world, but also — through tight close-ups, cramped quarters, and whispered words — envelops us in her sense of suffocation. As she strides towards a climax that is suitably striking yet restrained, we yearn for her to make a choice that will let us uncoil and breathe.
Them That Follow made its Texas Premiere at SXSW.
Kristy Puchko is Film Critic at Riot Material Magazine. Ms. Puchko (@KristyPuchko) is a New York-based film critic and entertainment journalist, her work has appeared in Vanity Fair, IndieWire, Nerdist, and Pajiba (to name a few). Ms. Puchko is a regular contributor on the Slashfilmcast, and teaches a course on film criticism at FIT. To see more of her work, visit DecadentCriminals.com