Certain displays of religiosity come perilously close to showing off, and handling poisonous snakes as a sign of one’s faith ranks pretty high on that list. Snake handling seems to be primarily an American innovation, and while scholars disagree as to who originated it, the name of George Went Hensley is often cited as the great popularizer of this practice. Notably, Hensley died as the result of a snake bite incurred during a church service, after refusing medical care, which at least demonstrates that he was playing with live ammo, rather than being a fraud in the mold of Asa Hawks, the “blind” preacher in Flannery O’Connor’s novel Wise Blood (1952). Hensley was neither the first nor the last person to handle snakes as part of a religious service, and despite being outlawed in most states, the practice lives on today.
Pastor Lemuel (Walter Goggins, in the type of role he could do in his sleep) probably sees himself as a spiritual heir to Hensley. He leads a small fundamentalist congregation in a rural church somewhere in Appalachia (the film was shot in Ohio), and breeds the snakes he uses in the church services, much to the displease of the local law enforcement authorities. His daughter Mara (Alice Englert), a quiet and thoughtful girl, is scheduled to be married to a young man, Garrett (Lewis Pullman), who attends the same church. Mara’s way out of Garrett’s league, however, and is more interested in a different young man, Augie (Thomas Mann), who’s no longer among pastor Lemuel’s flock. Not that her preferences matter in the least—Lemuel expects to be obeyed, at home as in church, and it’s not clear if Mara, who has been raised to defer to men, has the courage to stand up to him.
Them That Follow, written and directed by Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage, takes the concept of the slow buildup to an extreme. For the first two-thirds of this film, you could be forgiven for wondering if anything is ever going to happen. You might also wonder if everyone but Lemuel is suffering from hookworm, as they seem to be perpetually half-dazed and monumentally inexpressive. To be fair, Poulton and Savage are evoking the slower pace of life in a particular type of community, where people as a matter of course keep a lot of what they’re thinking and feeling to themselves. Still, this is a movie, time is short, and it’s possible to maintain a surface calm while expressing the depths that lie beneath. Olivia Colman, who plays Thomas’ mother Hope, shows how it is done (but of course she does, because she’s always great), communicating the contradictions felt by her character while outwardly remaining within the narrow range of behavior allowed to a woman in this community.
In the final third, Them That Follow explodes into action: secrets are revealed, courage is tested, and (of course) the snakes are taken out of their custom-made carrier and handled, with varying degrees of success. Faith and obedience are also tested, because it’s one thing to say in the abstract that faith will heal all, and quite another to hew to that principle when it’s your own flesh and blood who is being denied readily available medical care. Them That Followis far from a perfect movie, but it has enough of interest to make it worth watching, not least the effort it makes to get inside a culture that remains as foreign to most Americans as that of Classical Japan or Imperial Russia. | Sarah Boslaugh